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When Will Be the Last Time?

How I wish I’d known it was the last time Jesse would call “Gran, Gran. Will you come up here?” when he awoke after spending the night with Husband and me. My 4 year-old Grand called early, at daybreak, and I threw on my housecoat and went upstairs to his bed. We snuggled close. Jesse held his stuffed bear in his arms as we sat side-by-side leaning against the bed’s headboard. I read Lightning McQueen’s Tales from the Track.

Recently when Jesse spent the night, I awoke before he did and sat drinking my first cup of coffee when I heard footsteps on the stairs. Jesse jumped onto the floor from the last step, saw me at the kitchen table, and ran to me. “Hi, Gran,” he said. I wanted to say, “Jesse, go back upstairs and get in bed and call me,” but I didn’t. “I got up all by myself,” he said. He sat in my lap and we talked in soft voices and read a book, but it wasn’t the same as snuggling with my sleepy-eyed Grand on his bed. If I’d known it was the last time that Jesse would stay in bed and call me, I would have stayed beside him a little longer.

As I buckled Jesse’s car seat in my van one day he said, “I’m big now. I don’t need a car seat. Mom has a booster.” I took a little longer than usual to adjust the tightness of the straps that securely held him and had held his older siblings and cousins. I’m not sentimental about a car seat. Now I help him with the seat belt when he sits in a booster and we hug, but he’ll soon learn how to do it and not want my help. And I’ll miss our quick hug and his smile after we agree the straps are just right, not too tight, not too loose.

I treasure Jesse’s greetings. With arms open wide and a big smile and shouting, “Gran!” he runs to me and wraps both arms around my knees. He no longer says, “Pick-up hug” as he did as a toddler, but looks up and raises his arms. When I lift him, he wraps his legs and arms around me and lays his head on my shoulder. When will be the last time?

When will be the last time Jesse will sit in my lap while I tie his shoes? When he leans with his back against my legs while I zip his jacket? Get excited when I point out a crane or a bulldozer? When we pretend that we’re in a cave while under a quilt that’s over two chairs? When he says, “Look, Gran. I’m really smart,” after he stacks blocks sorted by color and size?

I’m thankful Jesse is becoming independent and I’m cherishing his ‘littleness.’ One day his greeting will be a wave and he’ll tie his own shoes.

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Do You Have Any Pet Peeves?

“What gets under your skin?” Jim Herrin asked in a recent Sunday editorial and I immediately thought of a time during my teaching days.

“My daughter thinks you don’t like her. Ann (not her real name) says you always frown at her and she has to sit in the back row,” said a mother who had requested a parent-teacher conference. I had great respect for this mother, a fellow teacher. I chose my words carefully.

“I’m sorry Ann feels this way and I like her, but not a couple of things she does. Does she sit on her knees and sway from side to side while seated at home? She does here in the classroom and she sits in the back so other students won’t be distracted with her in front of them,” I explained. Her mother said that her daughter’s swaying bothered her at the dinner table. “But what really grades on my nerves is a constant repetitive sound. Like a pencil tapping on a desk. I’m not sure Ann is aware when she does it, like I didn’t know I frown when I look at her.”

Ann’s mom said, “Oh, that’s my pet peeve, too, and my high school students know it so they sometimes make sounds just to annoy me.” For the next few minutes, we two teachers shared our pet peeves, the little things that made us cringe. Thankfully, this conference ended well with a plan to help Ann understand that I liked her.

Other sounds annoy me. Like some people talking. Over the weekend, I watched the Tennessee men’s basketball team play in the SEC tournament and I’m sure I frowned when Dick Vitale, the game announcer, got on a roll. His hyper-pitched and overly-excited voice, non-stop screaming, and repeating the same words annoy me. “Oh! Oh! Oh! Unbelievable! Look at him! Nobody jumps like that! He’s above everyone with that rebound! That’s why he gets more than 10 rebounds a game! Oh, baby!” he screamed.

Another time Vitale screamed, “He hit the floor to get the ball! Hit the floor! Did you see him hit the floor?” In my head I screamed, “I heard you the first time!” Yes, I know I can mute the sound and I’ve done that more than once, but I like hearing the crowd, the explanation of fouls, and everything except Vitale when he’s excessively exuberant and screams.

While discussing pet peeves with Husband, we agreed that rudeness is high on our lists. I’m annoyed when someone is rude to a restaurant waiter or store clerk or anyone whose job it is to serve the public. I worked as a salesperson in a women’s clothing store, and that experience taught me to stand in the shoes of the person on the other side of the counter.

I can’t end without admitting why I rarely chew gum. The sound of popping gum must be a pet peeve to some people. Why else would they frown and move away while I chomp on a stick of Spearmint?

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Friend for 40 Years

Do you remember when and where you met your really good friend? The one who laughs with you during good times and cries during bad times.

September, 1977. Husband and I had moved back to Cookeville, back to his hometown and my college town after living in Nashville for seven years. I didn’t want to go to the Newscomers Meeting that night. Cookeville wasn’t really new, but my college friends weren’t here. We had two toddlers so I spent my days changing diapers and wiping up spilled milk.

Husband knew many Cookeville people. I didn’t. “You should go,” he said. “It’ll be a night out and you’ll meet people.” I did need a night out. But with strangers?

I heard laughter and chatter as I walked through the church hallway. In a large room, about thirty women had gathered in small clusters. Not one familiar face. I found a seat on the back row.

The Newcomers chairman said loudly, “Welcome to Newcomers! We’ll start as we always do. Everyone will stand and introduce yourself. If it’s your first meeting, tell us when and why you moved here? Tell all about yourself, your hobbies, and if you have a family, about them.” Oh, no. I didn’t know I’d have to stand and talk.

A gray-headed woman said she’d researched Cookeville and decided to retire here. Obviously, she’d practiced her introduction. What would I say? Words jumbled in my brain. Another lady, with a welcoming smile, stood.

“I’m Rita Craighead. We moved here about two months ago. Cookeville is my husband’s, Bob’s, hometown.” That got my attention – just like us. In a confident, soothing voice she said, “We moved here with no job and no place to live.” Really? So had we.

“We lived with Bob’s mother for a while and have just moved into a house,” Rita said. “We have one daughter, Andrea, who is ten.” There’s a difference.

“Anything else?” Ms. Chairman asked.

“Well, I like to play cards and read and cook and my husband encouraged me to come tonight to make new friends.” Same as me, I thought.

Quickly others stood and rattled off their names. As I stood, every woman turned backwards in her chair and looked at me. “I’m Susan Ray. And everything Rita said, that’s me. Except Allen and I have two young children, ages 2 ½ and 1.”

Rita and I hugged for the first time at the end of the meeting. Our families became friends. We shared meals, sometimes pizza right out of the box; sometimes beef tenderloin on finest china. Andrea, their daughter, babysat our children. For more than 30 years, I often stopped by Rita’s house for a cup of coffee and visited at her kitchen table. After Bob’s death in 2009, Rita moved to Murfreesboro to be close to her daughter and her brother. I was sad.

Last week, during Rita’s funeral service the minister said to keep memories of Rita in our minds and hearts and souls. I’m so very thankful for Rita’s friendship and for that first hug and many, many more.

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Celebrate Reading

To exercise your brain and keep it healthy, read. Just like you are doing now.

            This past Saturday, March 2, was National Read Across America Day, which has been celebrated on Dr. Seuss’s birthday since 1998. This day, created by the National Education Association, is intended for children and youth in every United States community to celebrate reading. Let’s stretch that celebration of reading through all of March for everyone, from children to adults.

Reading twenty minutes a day is the time that numerous research studies have proven makes a difference in a child’s learning. Generally, the more time we are exposed to something and the more time spent practicing it, the better we’ll become at performing it. This is true for reading. Reading exercises and stretches the brain; it connects the present with previous learning. Reading aloud to a child develops listening skills and prepares young children for learning. The single greatest factor in a child’s ability to read is being read to, even as a newborn.

When’s the last time you read to a child? It’s a gift, for the child and you. Snuggling a little one in your lap while reading aloud is a bonding time. Quiet, uninterrupted time. Once after I finished a book with Annabel, when she was 4, she said, “Gran, will you show me that again?” Show me again. Those words told me she had comprehended the story and transformed it to pictures. Don’t think a teen-ager is too old to be read to. They’ll not sit on your lap, but they’ll listen. Even adults like to hear someone read aloud. Years ago my Tennessee Tech professor, Dr. Eleanor Ross taught a class entitled Teaching of Reading and my favorite part of the class was the last few minutes when Dr. Ross read a children’s book aloud.

My love for reading goes back to childhood when Mom or Dad sat beside my bed and read from a Bible story book and whatever book I was reading at the time. When I was a fourth and fifth grade student, I read every biography that was in our school library. Do I remember the details of those people’s lives? No, but I read for fun and followed the example of everyone in my family who read newspapers, magazines, and books.

As an educator, mother, and grandmother, I’m convinced that children who are read to and have opportunities to read aloud and silently have a high probability of being successful students, and therefore, successful in their work. Research shows a strong correlation between a child’s ability to read and academic performance. You’ve probably heard that students first learn to read and then read to learn. It’s true.

We would all do well to follow the suggested 20 minutes daily reading habit. A well-known quote by Dr. Seuss sums up the importance of reading. “The more you read, the more you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Let’s share our reading, our learning, the places we go with someone else.

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Microcars and a Yellow Volkswagen

Beth opened the car door and said to my Grand, “Would you like to sit in this car?” Elaine’s eyes opened wide and my Grand shook her head rejecting Beth’s offer. “Well, it’s just your size,” Beth encouraged Elaine.

The 1957 BMW Isetta at the Cookeville History Museum is the perfect size for my seven-year-old Grand, but Elaine declined the invitation from Beth Thompson, the museum’s manager, to sit in a tiny car. Maybe because I’d just read aloud the sign that stated ‘Please do not touch the cars,’ and maybe because Elaine was startled that a front hood was also the door. Neither she nor I expected a car hood door or to be invited to touch a car.

The six displayed microcars, a part of the Lane Motor Museum collection in Nashville, don’t look large enough for adults. They seem like cars for my young Grands to ride in for fun, but they are real cars for adults and five on display can be driven. We rarely see small cars; they were built for European streets that are much more narrow than our Cookeville streets.

Seeing these small cars makes me think of a yellow Volkswagen, owned by my high school friend in the mid-1960s. Marietta was always willing to take us girls to ballgames, the skating rink, and the movie. But one spring day, when we were seniors, my friends and I planned an outing for the middle of a school day.

We left from the school parking lot after our second class and planned to return to school at lunchtime. Four girls squeezed in the back seat and I sat beside Marietta who immediately announced that the gas tank indicator showed empty. The service station attendant didn’t look surprised when we handed him two quarters and asked for fifty cents worth of gas.

And we shouldn’t have been surprised that he called Pickett County High School and reported that girls, who should have been in school, had just been at his service station. He probably named us. We traveled about five miles to the blue bridge near Sunset Dock, got out of the car, took pictures of ourselves that showed the car and the bridge, and went back to school.

The principal met us in the parking lot and watched as we climbed out of Marietta’s VW. His smile didn’t match his angry words. We were in trouble and each had to report to the teachers whose classes we’d missed and we had to write a letter to our parents explaining why we missed class. Those letters were to be signed by our parents and returned to school the next day.

When you see the microcars at the History Museum, located at 40 E. Broad Street, look for my favorite, William Cyclo. I’m partial to little yellow cars, and I’m thankful Marietta’s VW was bigger than this one. Also look for the car that that can be pedaled and has a gas engine and guess which car Elvis owned. These cars will be displayed until March 23.

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Cole’s Country Store

“What’ll you have?” asked the server who stood beside me. I looked at the lunch menu that was hand written on a large dry erase board.

“Maybe everything. It all sounds good,” I said.

“You can. Some people eat one plate full here and take another one home,” said Tish who not only serves the food, she’s also the cook and cashier. “Save room for cherry cobbler and ice cream.”

Everything on the menu was good country cooking. Chicken casserole. Meatloaf. Green beans. Pinto beans. Mac and cheese. Fried apples. Cooked cabbage. Stewed potatoes. Fried corn. Slaw. And cornbread baked in a black skillet.

This was my second lunch outing to Cole’s County Store. I’d recommended Cole’s, located here in Putnam County, to my college roommate and her two Davidson County teacher friends because it’s like going home to mom’s and grandma’s kitchens. And that welcome is exactly what owner, Marcia Cole Huffman, intends.

But why did she buy a rundown, century-old building that had been boarded and empty for years and is located on Highway 70 west of Baxter, miles from other retail businesses? And why open a meat-and-three restaurant?

Marcia’s close friends and sisters discouraged her. They advised her to not consider buying the store when it was advertised for auction, but Marcia could not let her great-grandfather’s store go to someone outside the family. “I was obsessed,” Marcia admitted.

Marcia, who lives in Georgia and recently retired from working in a systems engineering office explained, “Dr. Phylander Sylvester Cole, my great-grandfather, established the store. It has been his doctor’s office, a post office, a place for marriages by a family justice of the peace, a bus stop, a polling place, a source for hunting and fishing license, gas and coal oil, a general store, a gas station, and a community gathering place! One friend put it this way, ‘What kind of financial decision is it to buy a rundown store in the middle of nowhere?’ Of course, it was not a financial decision – it was a HEART decision. Both sides of my family were born and lived in this beautiful area. I’ve been to all continents except the cold one, and the best place to be is in Putnam County, Tennessee.”

Marcia thought she’d update the building to be a country residence and a place for family gatherings, but when community members saw work being done on the abandoned store, they assumed it was going to reopen. Marcia said, “The whole thing spiraled!” Tish wanted to open a “meat-and-3” and she talked with Marcia. Neighbors, family, and friends helped Marcia and Tish equip the kitchen and provided store furnishings from the mid-1900s when the store was in its heyday.

Heart and opportunity. That’s why Marcia bought the old Cole’s Store and opened a restaurant. It’s worth a drive down highway 70; just don’t be in a hurry. You’ll want to sit and talk a spell, like I did. The meatloaf, mac and cheese, green beans, and coleslaw tasted like home.

More Heart Tugs

Valentine’s Day. A time to show love. I promised myself to be mindful of Heart Tugs, to remember and appreciate loving moments.

I sat in my reading chair with paper and pen and read a short devotion early one morning while the house was quiet. Soon three young Grands and Son and Daughter 2 (aka Daughter-in-Law,) who were visiting for a few days, would awaken and be ready for juice, coffee, and breakfast. I closed my eyes and then heard a patter of footsteps. Five-year-old Neil stuck his head around the living room corner wall. I motioned for him to come to me.

My Grand, wearing only his ‘unders’ as he calls his underwear, ran across the room and snuggled onto my lap. He laid his head against my chest and wrapped his arms around himself. I covered him with a knitted afghan and in hushed voices we talked and agreed that we’d slept well and we weren’t hungry and we liked being the first ones awake. “Gran, tell me last night’s Purple Cow story,” Neil said.  I repeated, with Neil’s help, the one I’d made-up as I sat beside him on his bed the night before.

“I have a story,” said Neil and he spun a tale. A big black bear wandered away from home. He fell into a creek. He climbed out of the water and walked up a bank. “How do you like my made-up story?” he asked. I loved it, but most I loved those few minutes with my Grand, just the two of us together.

All our Grands and their parents gathered around Husband’s and my dining room table for brunch. Eight children, ages 3-13, and six adults. Last to fill my plate from the buffet served meal, I thought ‘this is as good as life gets.’ A cliché, but my thought. Jesse, who was seated, said, “Gran, come sit by me.” My four-year old Grand reached his hand toward mine. While holding his wiggling fingers as we all recited our family prayer, life got a little better.

Sometimes Heart Tugs happen when not holding hands or hugging or even touching the person who makes the heartstrings tighten. I posted a picture of an empty plastic popcorn bottle on Facebook and asked if anyone knew where I could buy it. “I bought it locally, but I don’t remember where. After looking at several stores (I listed five), I can’t find it,” I wrote. Friends’ comments gave suggestions of other brands and online links to order my favorite popcorn. Daughter 2 sent a text that read, “Tomorrow a box will be delivered on your porch. Enjoy. Love you!” From miles and miles across country, Daughter 2 sent a hug, masked as popcorn.

After Husband returned home from running errands, a box of chocolate covered cherries appeared on our kitchen counter. For no reason, except he knows what I like: surprises, chocolate, and cherries.

Heart Tugs. I’m catching all I can.

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