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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,

Susan

'Tis the Week Before Christmas

‘Tis the week before Christmas and my life is a’jumble.  There’s much to do.  Write lists.  Shop. Wrap gifts.  Attend Christmas programs and plays.  Bake and decorate cookies with my Grands.  Deliver gifts.  Watch Christmas movies. Read A Christmas Carol, for the umpteenth time.  

            When the hustle and bustle overwhelmed me, I brewed a cup of tea and settled into a favorite chair where I can see an outside birdfeeder and our Christmas tree.  Finches and cardinals calmed my thoughts.  A nativity ornament, carved of olive wood and bought in Jerusalem, reminded me why I celebrate Christmas and soothed my spirit. 

            Ornaments on my tree take me back to memories of childhood, to the people who cared for and loved me.  I think of gifts.  On Christmas Eve, I opened one gift:  flannel pajamas.  Long sleeve, button-up the front, collared pajama tops and pajama pants with tucks just above the hem so they could be lengthened as I grew.  I never saw Mom make them, but I knew pajamas were in the wrapped package that she put under the tree a few days before Christmas. 

            Granny always gave money, but the amount varied.  In November, she’d say, “I don’t know how much you’ll get for Christmas.  It depends on how the ‘baccy sells.”  Granny had a tobacco base that she leased and when those dried tobacco leaves were sold in mid-December, she’d get a check.  Most years she gave me a $5 bill, a generous gift in the 1950s, but a few years Granny gave three $5 bills, a small fortune!

            Christmas Day dinners were the most special meal of the year. Dad, my uncles, and grandfather wore white shirts and ties; Mom, my aunts, and grandmothers wore church dresses and pearl necklaces.  The dining room table was covered with a white tablecloth and set with the finest china and crystal and an arrangement of fresh flowers and evergreens.  Children sat around card tables, also covered with a tablecloth. Platters of sliced turkey and cornbread dressing and bowls filled with vegetables and salads were placed on the dining table where the adults sat.  Dad’s blessing included gratitude for Jesus, our family, and the food.  Then we children stood at the corners of the dining room table and filled our plates as the food was passed.  Mom and her sisters served their best desserts: sugar plum pudding, chocolate cream pie, and apple stack cake. 

            I want to carry the love and my memories of Christmases past to Christmas present.  When my Grands decorate cookie angels and Christmas trees, sticky icing and sprinkles will coat my kitchen counter.  When gifts are opened and paper and ribbon clutter the floor, I want my Grands to know the love I felt. When our traditional breakfast is served, Son and Daughter will tell their children that they always ate country ham and angel biscuits and strawberry jam on Christmas morning.  

            Christmas isn’t about lists and tasks, it’s about people and sharing love.  May we all enjoy Christmas preparations and activities, and make memories that will be cherished.####

Let Children Give

A young fifth grade student knows his teacher well.  Mrs. R calls him a rough tough boy and she shared this story.  Their school gives money and a shopping trip to children who wouldn’t have money and an opportunity to shop.  This little guy asked Mrs. R, “What do you want for Christmas?” She answered,

“For you to work hard!”

            That wasn’t what he had in mind.  “I’m going shopping and I have SO MUCH money and I want to get you something,” he said.  Mrs. R thanked him with a big hug and told him he didn’t need to get her a gift.  “I’m still going to get you lipstick or perfrume (his word) because they’re what you love,” he said.

            Mrs. R, a teacher for twenty years, wears perfume and bright colored lipstick.  And this rough tough guy wants to give her something he knows she’ll like.  Not because he has to, not because his mother told him to take a gift to his teacher, not because his teacher asked for a gift.  Because he wants to.  I hope he finds the brightest red lipstick ever and I know Mrs. R will wear it.  And if he gives the cheapest sweet-smelling perfume, she’ll wear it too, at least a few times. And that rough tough boy will probably work harder when she does.

            Mrs. R’s story took me back to my classroom where elementary age children brought me Christmas gifts for twenty-five years.  I appreciated every gift, but the ones that touched my heart were the ones that children chose.  Like the small ceramic hummingbird that sits in the window over my kitchen sink.  When David’s mother picked him up after school that Christmas party day, she made sure he didn’t hear her as she apologized for such a small gift and said he wouldn’t bring the gift she’d chosen.  David chose the perfect gift.

            My Christmas tree has a small flock of birds: cardinals, a blue jay, doves, partridges.  All gifts from students.   Brooke handed me a beautifully store-wrapped gift and said, “Momma said you had better like these.  They cost a lot of money!”  Inside were two green partridges which hang with other birds at eye level on my Christmas tree where I see them every morning as I sit and drink coffee and enjoy quiet time.

            My sweaters were often decorated with pins, scatter pins of all kinds.  Best teacher.  Santa with rhinestone eyes.  Angels with gold wings.  Gifts that students chose and when I wore them, the givers stood straighter, work harder, smiled more.

            I also remember gifts I really liked, but left the giver uncertain.  Gift certificates that were just a piece of paper.  Banana bread that the giver didn’t like.  A glass pie plate.

            During this Christmas shopping season, let children choose the gifts they give.  Let them know the joy, the excitement of watching someone open what they chose.  Let them smile when someone hugs and says thank you.  Let them give.

Lux Remembers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Happy Thanksgiving Memory

When Lux moved into our guest bedroom on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1990, Husband and I welcomed a third child, another teenager. She brought two suitcases, clothes on hangers, and a big smile. Lux, Lavanya, was a Rotary Exchange student from India, and we were her host family for four months.

            About a year earlier, during a family supper discussion Husband talked about the exchange students who presented the Noonday Rotary Club’s program and the idea to invite a student to live with us was born. Daughter and Son, ages 16 and 14, had known other Cookeville High School exchange students and they thought it would be fun.  Husband and I agreed so when he learned that Lux needed a host family, he volunteered.

            Rotary Exchange students are 15-19 years old and attend school while living with two or three hosts families during their 10-12 months experiences.  Lux had requested the United States.  She came from a professional family; an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

            Lux had lived with another Cookeville host family before she came to us so she knew the routines of a being a high school student and had earned how living here was different from living in her home city, a megacity.  But she had been the only child at her first host home and at our house she was thrown into a hectic schedule.  Two working parents and two teen-age siblings who played sports, attended Young Life meetings and church youth groups, and whose friends who were in and out of our home often.  All that activity made Lux’s smile even wider.

            No matter where anyone went, even to the grocery store or post office, Lux wanted go. She especially enjoyed high school and Tennessee Tech basketball games, and although she didn’t understand the rules, she liked the excitement and cheered when we did.   

            Lux sometimes wore a red dot on her forehead.  She explained that where she lived in southern India, a dot could be marked after prayers, but in some Indian cultures, only a married woman can wear a dot, a bindi.  And she explained her altar which set on her bedside table.  Christmas was a natural time to talk about the differences between Christian and Hindu faiths.  These ongoing discussions among made me appreciate this international student exchange program.

            Lux enjoyed the freedom of wearing blue jeans and t-shirts, but for special occasions she chose her native dress, beautiful colorful saris.  Showing her sense of humor, she once dressed in her sari and a baseball cap that Son had given her.  She stood by the door smiling, and as expected, Daughter and Son both shook their heads and told her to either change her clothes or take off the cap.  She giggled and took off the cap.

             Thanksgiving brings memories of Lux, a daughter I thought would move in, then out of our lives, but phone calls, Christmas cards, emails, and social media have kept us in touch.  When she calls and says, “Hi, Mom,” I see her smile and travel back to 1990. 

####

My Grand Said

“Gran, your lunch looks like a dead mouse with a chicken on its head,” my 5-year old Grand told me while he ate lunch with Husband and me. How could half of a ham sandwich look like a dead mouse? I could stretch my imagination to see a chicken created from five triangular pieces of cheese.

“Jesse, have you ever seen a dead mouse?” Husband asked.

“No, but it’d look exactly like what Gran’s eating,” he said. Looking at his plate where I’d created face features using grapes and tangerine segments, Jesse said, “I like teeth and eyes, but I don’t like hair so I’m glad my guy is bald like Pop.” He giggled, ducked his head, and lifted his eyes to look across the table at his Pop.

There are several Jesse quotes in a little book entitled “The Grands Said” where I’ve collected things our grandchildren have said.

When he was four, Jesse put his face against the window of the van on a dark night.  Those of us who could see by the headlights were talking about a small animal that had run in front of the van. “I can’t see! Somebody turn on my outside lights!”

Recently, on a cloudy dark night while Jesse and his family traveled in their van, Jesse again stared outside. “It’s splish-splash dark,” he said. His mother repeated splish-splash dark. “Yeah, it’s really dark.”

A few minutes later, Jesse’s older sister asked, “Jesse, do you mean pitch-black dark?” (Siblings often interpret.)

“Yeah, pitch-black, splish-splash dark,” said my Grand.

While eating ice cream, Jesse stopped, put his spoon in the bowl and his hand over his face. “Oh, I’ve got a cold mind!” he said.  His cold mind was like other people’s brain freezes.

When Jesse, then 4, spent the night with Husband and me, he didn’t like the plain yellow pillowcase that was on his bed and asked for the Star Wars pillow. He looked at the flat pillow case made from fabric with Star War characters and asked, “How do you blow it up?”

Yesterday, I underestimated my Grand’s vocabulary.  He and I sang “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain.” On the second stanza, I sang, “She’ll be driving six white horses when she comes.”

Jesse yelled, “Gran! Stop! How could she ride six horses?” Drive, not ride, I explained. “How could she do that?” I described a big wagon, like his red wagon but the size of his family’s van, and maybe with a top. Someone could ride in it and guide the horses with long leather straps attached to the horses’ bridle. “Gran, don’t you call that a carriage?” Jesse asked.

Jesse was barely four when he dumped about 50 colored building blocks on the floor. He sorted them by color: red, green, orange, blue, yellow. Then he made stacks by color, largest to smallest.  Sitting tall and straight, he looked at me and said, “Look, Gran, I’m really smart.”

My young Grands make me laugh just by what they say. What gifts!

College Days Reflection


I am officially a Golden Grad of Tennessee Technological University.  At a banquet last Thursday night, TTU’s president placed a medallion around my neck and offered congratulations.
During the reception hour before the banquet, we 1969 graduates mingled and squinted to read nametags.  We talked about where we live, how many children and grandchildren we have, and how long we’ve been retired. The longer I talked with someone the more I remembered. Wrinkles and extra pounds don’t hide eyes and smiles. 
The TTU alumni office published and gave each of us a Class of 1969 Memory Book which includes pictures of the university, then and now, and individual pictures and personal updates that we submitted.  We were asked to share treasured memories, favorite professors, and most celebrated life events. 
A treasured memory is when I walked for the first time across campus with Allen, who was Husband three years later.  Allen and I walked from the Student Center, across the quad, past Derryberry Hall, to the science building for my chemistry class. Mrs. Charlene Mullins, who taught family life classes in the Home Economics department, was a favorite teacher. With her gentle voice and calm demeanor, she created classrooms that were as secure and comforting as kitchen tables.  And my most celebrated life events are about people: Husband, Children, Grands.
Fifty years ago, I earned a B.S. degree and teaching certificates that qualified me to teach home economics (a subject in high school many years ago), general science, and grades 1-8.  But some of the greatest benefits of my college years aren’t printed on paper.
Four years of living in a dormitory, a two-person room, and a hallway bathroom shared with twenty other girls developed tolerance and patience.  And those girls, my roommate and hallway dorm mates, became life long friends.  Friends who have shared joys and troubles regularly; at one time by a chain letter, but now by texts and emails. 
As a member of a sorority, I learned to agree to disagree while maintaining respect for others, to accept majority rule, and to work with a committee (which to this day I don’t like, but the experiences taught me how). I learned that little things, like the color of napkins for a party isn’t important.  Respecting people’s feelings and accepting differences are. 
I was given the opportunity to be a leader and take on the responsibilities of an elected office.  If I didn’t complete a class assignment, I suffered the consequence of a bad grade. If I didn’t complete and turn in a required sorority form to the Dean of Women, my forty sisters suffered. 
My life would have been very different had I not attended college. Not left home and lived and studied at TTU.  Not been a member of a group and not completed a degree. 
Two days that made the great differences in my life were the day I enrolled and the day I graduated from college. Those deserve celebration. Thank you Tennessee Tech University for honoring us Golden Grads.