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Thanksgiving – Then and Now

iz347022I stood at the corner of Mom’s dining room table.  Mom and Dad, my two aunts and uncles, and my grandparents sat in ladder back chairs around that drop leaf cherry table.  We children – my brother, my two boy cousins, and I – set our plates on the table corners and as the food was passed we spooned it on our plates.  And we ate at the linen covered card table just an arm’s length from the big table.  Thanksgiving, when I was a kid.

Mother and her two sisters took turns hosting holiday meals and they did it with style.  Best china and crystal and silver.  A starched white tablecloth and matching napkins.  A fall centerpiece.  And these three ladies were good cooks.

The menu rarely changed.  Turkey, dressing, giblet gravy, green beans, creamed corn, lima beans, sweet potato casserole, jellied cranberry sauce, relish tray, rolls, pumpkin pie, chocolate pie, sweet tea.  All homemade, from scratch, except for the bake and serve dinner rolls.  Mom, as the hostess, cooked the turkey and dressing, and all three sisters stirred and tasted and seasoned the gravy to get it just right.  Aunt Doris made pies.  Aunt Nell made the relish tray and lima beans.  The vegetables – home grown beans and corn – taste the same no matter who cooked them.  Sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows.

After we ate, the women gathered in the kitchen for the clean-up ritual.  Out came plastic containers to divvy up the leftovers.  Enough for each family’s meals over the weekend.  Mom’s and my aunts’ talking and laughing and sharing secrets entertained me, and I willingly dried the dishes just to be close to them.  The clean up was finished when I crawled under the table to move its legs so that both leaves could fall, and it was moved back against the wall.

When my generation married and had homes and children, Mom and my aunts passed on the honor of hosting Thanksgiving.  We’ve sat at many different tables as my family grew.  And our menu expanded.  Cousin Carolyn’s whipped potatoes and green congeal salad.  Cousin Janie’s cherry salad.  Sister-in-law Brenda’s sweet potato casserole with a crunchy topping.   My cranberry salad.

Tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, Husband and I will sit at that same cherry dining room table at Brenda’s home.  Sit with her, my two cousins and their wives, and all our children and grandchildren who can be there.  We’ll sit in those same chairs where my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and my brother once sat.  In prayer, we’ll remember them—those who are no longer with us.

We’ll fill Brenda’s best china plates with the same foods that have graced that table many Thanksgivings, and we’ll probably repeat some of the same stories that have been told since I was a kid.  After we eat, we women will gather in the kitchen with take-home containers in hand.  We’ll clean up the kitchen, and then one of the children will crawl under the drop leaf table to move its legs so it can be moved against the wall.

I’m thankful that Mom and my aunts created Thanksgiving traditions.  And it makes me happy to celebrate with family around the same table where I once stood and filled my plate.  Back when I was too young to sit at the big table.


How to Stay Married for 50 Years

imagesGo into marriage with the thought, ‘This is forever.’  Take each day one day at a time and never go to sleep mad.  The days you don’t like each other stop and remember why you fell in love.  Did you read these words of advice from married couples in this newspaper’s supplement on Valentine’s Day?  Golden Anniversary – a celebration of local couples who have been married 50+ years.  Eighty- three couples married between 50 and 75 years and not a single one stated, “Our life together has been blissful.  We never had problems  – only happiness and each day filled with loving actions and thoughts.”  No, these couples shared real life stories.

A couple married 67 years stated, “We were too stubborn to give up.”  One couple compared marriage to a birthday cake.  “To enjoy it you need some cake (everyday living) and a little frosting (romance and passion.)  Too much cake without frosting is boring.  Too much frosting by itself will make you sick.  Find your perfect balance.”

I studied the couples’ stories and words of advice to create a Top Ten List  – How to Stay Married for 50 Years.

10. Threaten that whomever leaves has to take the kids.

9.  Don’t get mad at the same time.

8. Try hard to get along with both sides of the family.

7. Treat your man like a king and treat your woman like a queen.

6. Always keep God in your life.  Pray for your mate.

5. Be willing to put your wants (and sometimes needs) second.  Treat your mate as your best friend.  Be kind and considerate to each other.

4. Play childishly with each other frequently.  Have fun.

3. Learn to say you’re sorry.  You always need to give and take and forgive and forget.  Talk to each other and don’t just hear – really, really listen.

2. Hold hands, love each other always, kiss in the morning and before bedtime.  Tell each other often, “I love you.”

1. When you marry and say ‘till death do us part, mean it and stick with it.

I’m keeping this list and the newspaper supplement handy, in the top drawer of my bedside table.  I need be reminded that other married couples haven’t always slept on a bed of roses with no thorns.  And it makes me smile to read about the couple who’ve been married 62 years and said, “Love grows with the passing of years until one day you wake up and realize you don’t want to be with anyone else except your sweetheart of many years.”

In six short years, Husband and I will celebrate our 50th anniversary.  Maybe we’ll be featured in the 2019 Golden Anniversary Celebration and give advice.  But until then, we’re like the couple married 65 years who stated, “We’re not a perfect couple, but we never quit trying.”






First Time Hostess

I lay in bed mentally checking my to-do lists.  Tables set.  Were the card table legs fastened?  Cut a lemon for tea.  Put the turkey in the oven at 5:00 a.m.  – just five hours from now.  Bake two pecan pies.  Wipe the bathroom sink.  Would the kids (ages 3 and 5) agree to wear the cute new outfits that my mother had made?

I’d written, checked, and rechecked lists for three days.  It was Husband’s and my firsttime to host a holiday dinner for my family.  And it wasn’t my idea.  Mother and her two sisters had rotated Thanksgiving and Christmas meals in their homes for 35 years, and they’d decided it was time for the younger generation to take over.

“We’ll help,” Mother had said.  “I’ll make the cornbread dressing and you know your Aunt Nell and Aunt Doris and I always make the gravy together.  Save the turkey drippings.  And everybody brings food.  You just put a turkey in the oven and make tea and coffee and maybe a dessert.  It’ll be fine.”  I told myself that these were the people – all 22 of them – who loved me best.  Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brother, cousins.  If things weren’t perfect, they’d understand.

But I was determined that Husband and I could host the perfect Thanksgiving dinner.  I’d take pecan pies out of the oven just after everyone arrived.  Wouldn’t that make the house smell good?  By tradition, I had covered the tables with white tablecloths, and set them with my best china, crystal goblets, silver, and floral centerpieces.

Thanksgiving morning, 5:00 a.m., I shoved an 18-pound turkey into a 325* oven and climbed back into bed until daylight.  I rolled and turned, but didn’t sleep.  I got up.  The morning passed quickly.  How many times can one adjust plates and forks and napkins?  Our children were cuter than cute in their new clothes.  Bathroom sinks sparkled.  Husband promised that the card tables wouldn’t fall.  I rolled out piecrusts – no store bought crusts for this feast – and used the family recipe for pecan filling.  Turkey out of the oven and pie in, right on schedule.

Our guests arrived carrying sweet potato pudding, corn, asparagus casserole, green beans, pumpkin pies, and more.  Mother and my aunts filled my small kitchen as they stirred and tasted the giblet gravy.  Husband sliced the turkey.  We could’ve been models for Norman Rockwell’s November magazine cover.  The oven buzzer sounded.  “That’s the pecan pies,” I announced.

“You even made pies this morning?”  my cousin asked.  I opened the oven door, grabbed two potholders and carefully set the first pie on a cooling rack.  When I lifted the second one out of the oven, it was a slippery sliding disk.  The hot pie flipped out of hands and landed upside down on the floor and splattered onto my shoes.  Tears ran down my face, and everyone assumed that the hot pie filling had burned my feet.  Not so.  The pecan pie oozing under the refrigerator erased all pretense of a picture-perfect Thanksgiving.

Now, some thirty years later, I make short lists, check them once, and don’t bake pies.  And it’s just fine.  And I’m thinking maybe it’s time for the younger generation to take over.

Children Just Watch

My Grand was 4 1/2 years old and she beat me in a second game of UNO.  The first game, I’d played to her hand to make sure that she won.  The next game, I played my cards.  Lou had announced, “UNO.  Red,” and laid a Draw Four card on the table.  I drew four cards.  She played her last card and beamed.  “I won again.  Two for me.  None for you.”

“Lou, you’re a really good UNO player.  How did you learn?” I asked.

“I watched Mommy and Daddy and David (her older brother) play and I just learned how.  I just watched.  I do what they do.”  Her answer hit a nerve that’d been burned into my brain many years earlier when I taught fourth grade.

Melody was one of my best-dressed students.  Her mother curled her hair every morning and tied it with ribbons that matched her outfit.  No jeans and t-shirts for her.  Her infectious greeting, “Good morning, everybody!” lit our classroom.  She hurried to my side after hanging her red wool coat on a coat hook.  “Mrs. Ray, will you please roll up my sleeves?”

The long sleeves of her plaid blouse hung unbuttoned.  “Sure.  Didn’t your mom have time to do it this morning?’  I asked.

“She didn’t know how.  I want my sleeves just like yours and she didn’t do it right.”  Just like my button-cuff sleeves that I rolled up because they were three inches too short for my long arms.  What else did Melody do just like me?

My Grand, now 5 1/2, and I agreed last week that some things in her craft box needed replacing.  “Bring it with you when you spend the night and we’ll clean it out and then go shopping,” I told Lou.

She sorted trash and treasures, putting loose stickers in a zip lock plastic bag, while I put a pot of water on the stove to boil pasta.  “I’m ready to make my list.  How do you spell tape?”  Lou stood at the kitchen table, with pencil and paper in hand.  Ten minutes later, she had her list.  Tape, glue, stickers.

“This glue,” she said and put it in our shopping basket.  She laid her list on the store floor and drew a line through the word glue.  A dozen packages of stickers hung at her eye level.  “These two,” she said within ten seconds.  The tape was high, out of her reach.  “Can you get the one in the middle?”  She drew lines through two more words: stickers and tape.  I complimented her on being a fast and good shopper.  “That’s because I do it a lot,” she said.  Lou shops with her mother who writes a grocery list and crosses off items that she puts in her shopping cart.

A hand scribbled sign hangs over my writing desk.  “Children watch.  Children learn.”  A sign that I moved from my school desk to my home desk.








Play or Work?

I’ve noticed that adults work and children play – even when they do the same activity.  Ask a child who’s putting together a jigsaw puzzle what he’s doing, and he’ll say, “Playing with a puzzle,” or “Putting a puzzle together.”  Ask an adult the same question and you’ll hear, “Working on a puzzle.”

Several years ago as a student in Leadership Putnam, I toured the Senior Citizen’s Center and observed an art class.  The teacher explained that everyone was working on paintings, using different types of media and different scenes.  “But we all work together here in the same room.”  My five-year-old Grand often asks to paint.  But she’s never worked on her paintings.  Why does she like to paint?  “It’s fun.  You can make anything you want,” she told me as she painted a bright red swirl across paper.  The art students at the Senior Citizen’s Center seemed to be having just as much fun.

Last week, I watched my three-year old Grand, at the Children’s Museum in the kitchen play area.  Her eyes wrinkled in concentration.  She filled a small shopping cart with plastic apples, celery, and green peppers.  She picked up a carrot, laid it down, and chose grapes.  Then she emptied the cart, placing her groceries in a small wooden refrigerator and in pots on a pretend stove.  When I said that we’d have to leave in about five minutes, she responded, “But, Gran, I’m not done playing.”  Somehow, I’ve never considered grocery shopping as play.

When my seven-year-old Grand wants to ride his bike in the woods beside our house, he clears a path.  He spends thirty minutes moving sticks and raking leaves to create a circular trail among the trees – all in the name of play – and another thirty minutes riding.  But he’s catching on.  When I suggest that he helps me pick up sticks in the yard, he’s quick to decide it’s time for him to go home.

Children play.  They arrange furniture, set a dinner table, and cook supper when they play house.  They ‘teach’ their dolls or pets or younger siblings how to say the alphabet.  They hammer and attach a bolt to a screw on kid-size workbenches.  They mold and create bowls and flowers with play dough and clay.  Using connecting blocks, they construct cars and airplanes and build fortresses and houses.

When does play become work?  When do we adults begin to describe what we do as work?  According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, play is the state of being active or relevant and work is an activity in which one exerts strength to perform something.  Being active and exerting strength.  Being relevant and performing something.  Close enough to be the same for me.

I’d rather play than work.  So I’ll play when I cook supper and when I knit a scarf.  But I just don’t think I can play with an iron and ironing board.

Muddy Pond Field Trip

I’m not sure if I load up my Grands in my van and go on Field Trips for them or for me.  As a retired teacher, I remember field trip days as fun days, and I choose places I want my Grands to know about.  Museums.  Fire department.  Post Office.  City Hall.  Cookeville Performing Arts Center.  Emergency Management Agency.  Cane Creek Park.  Pet stores.

My Grands don’t always like my choices, but they were excited about going to the Muddy Pond General Store.  That is, until they announced that they’d take their own money to buy Legos, and I told them that this store probably didn’t have Legos.  We were making this outing because they’d read When I Was Young in the Mountains, and they didn’t know what a general store looked like.  As we drove through Monterey and toward Muddy Pond, I stressed that we’d compare and contrast (teacher words that naturally flowed and I explained the meanings) a general store with the stores where we usually shop.

My Grands had $2.00 each to spend.  “What kind of toys do they have?” asked three year old Ruthie.  I didn’t know what kind of toys – if any – the Muddy Pond store would have.  I explained that most general stores sell everything that a family needs.  And this store would be like that.  Food, clothes, tools, pots and pans.  Everything that everyone in the family needed.

“If they have everything, they’ll have toys,” said Ruthie.

“If they don’t, it’s okay,” said Lou, age 5.  “Momma said they’d have sprinkles and we can buy some.  But she said we can’t buy candy.”  Spoken like a reigning Sprinkle Queen.

We made mental lists of goods displayed on the shelves.  Peanut butter.  Tomato sauce.  Plastic bags of flour, sugar, noodles, cornstarch.  A whole aisle of candy.  Kitchen goods – knives, plates, pots, pans, dishcloths.  Oil lamps.  “Come back here,” David, age 7, called.  “I found the toys.”  Crayons, coloring books, small metal tractors and cars.  “Let’s go upstairs.  I bet they have more stuff.”

Lou looked through a rack of long-to-the-ankle dresses.  “Do they have my size?”  I explained that many women and girls who live in Muddy Pond wore this type of long dress every day.  “Even when they play outside?”  Ruthie asked.  We tried out the hand made wooden rocking chairs, stood on stools, admired the quilts, and my Grands rocked on the rocking horses.  They found hand carved wooden boxes that Lou and Ruthie thought would be perfect for keeping private stuff.

Back downstairs, near the check out counter, we found the sprinkles.  Packed in small plastic boxes and every color of the rainbow.  My Grands spent their money on red, green, and yellow sprinkles, and I couldn’t resist the homemade peach fried pies and peanut brittle.

“Well, what do you think?”  I asked when we were all buckled in our seats in the van.  “Is the general store like the stores where you usually go?”  I forced a discussion identifying the differences and similarities.

After several minutes of silence as we journeyed on the unmarked paved country road, Lou said pensively, “You know what I think?  I think what they need is different from what we need.”

And that’s why we take Field Trips.


Facebook – Not Just for the Young

“Really, you do Facebook?” a friend asked.  Really, I do.  But I was skeptical when I first heard about social networking websites.  I thought such things were created by and for young people, not those of us who are considered over the hill.  My introduction to an online social network was listening to three young teacher friends while we ate lunch together.

“Did you see my Facebook post last night?”  Julie asked.

“No, what’d it say?”  Ann asked.

“I saw it,” said Cindy.  She turned to Ann.  “ Julie wanted to know whether she should wear her new walking shoes or her old ones when we walk after school today.”

“I’d wear the new ones.  What’d you tell her?”  Ann asked.

After listening quietly, I had to speak up.  “Wait.  I don’t understand.  Why’d you ask something like that online?  Couldn’t you all just talk to each other?”  The three laughed.  They insisted they were talking to each other.  “Is that the kind of thing people put on Facebook?”  I said.  For the rest of lunchtime, they told me what their friends had recently written and described pictures that had been posted.  I shook my head.  Some of it sounded like an old-fashion party line gossip.  But I did want to see pictures of a friend’s new house.  That was about six years and ­­­530 friends ago.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a few friend requests.  “Are you the Mrs. Ray who taught 4th grade in Sparta a long time ago?”  Von asked. He linked me to other friends who were my very first students.  Now I know about Abby’s children and grandchildren and Caroline’s success as an elementary school teacher.  Another former student is a stand-up comedian.  As a 6th grader, he shared a joke at the beginning of most school days, but he never learned the names of European countries.  I laugh every time Monty posts a picture of himself on stage at one of his shows.

I like that our daughter’s friends, girls who slept on our living room floor at slumber parties twenty years ago, let me peek into their lives.  And I’m glad that our son’s friends, now grown-ups and daddies, share pictures of their children.  Birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings – all are celebrated among FB friends.  Pleas for prayers for those who are ill circulate quickly.  Pictures of newborns, less than an hour old, announce births.

Skimming and scanning, I make my way through Facebook posts.  I’m hooked.  In fifteen minutes, I know what’s happening with friends and family who live near and far.  I skip past reposts and long quotes.  I read personal updates.  I marvel over pictures of sunsets, hummingbirds, and old barns.  I take virtual trips to Italy, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the beach.  And then I see the best pictures of all.  Pictures of my Grands.  So I linger, longer than fifteen minutes.

Yes, I do the online social networking thing.  And I’m pretty sure that the creators of Facebook never imagined how much this grandmother would appreciate their invention.

Who’s the Tomato Queen?

June declared that her mother is the Queen of Tomatoes. I really don’t like to argue with friends, but June didn’t know my mother when she and Dad grew a huge vegetable garden.
Mom served tomatoes every meal. Sliced, with eggs and bacon for breakfast, on a BLT sandwich for lunch, and chopped in coleslaw or quartered for supper.
Mom canned tomato juice, whole tomatoes, and tomato soup with vegetables. No tomato – not even a green one – went to waste. At the end of the growing season, green tomatoes were sliced, coated with cornmeal and fried. Fried green tomatoes. Delicious. And if there were too many green tomatoes to fry before the first killing frost in the fall, Mom picked them from the vines. Then she wrapped them, individually, in a torn piece of old newspaper and laid them in a single layer on a cardboard tray. The green tomatoes were stored, with hopes that they would ripen, in the darkest corner of the basement. The unused coal bin. And when those tomatoes turned light pink or red, she cooked them in spaghetti sauce or with Salisbury steak.
June said that her mother, Nell, buys home grown tomatoes from neighbors. “Searching for, talking about, and preserving tomatoes all loom large in my mom’s life each summer. She would never consider serving a meal of fresh summer vegetables and hot cornbread without luscious, fresh tomatoes.” Nell handles each tomato with special care. Wrapped in tissue paper. “Each Christmas she collects used tissue paper –all colors – and cuts perfect squares. She gently wraps all tomatoes, one by one, and places them on small trays and stores them on the floor under her bed.” There an air vent provides the perfect storage temperature. Nell’s tomatoes go straight from under her bed to the dinner table. (And all these years I thought my kitchen counter was the perfect storage place for ripe tomatoes.)
At the end of the season, Nell buys whatever tomatoes she can find. Red and green and all shades in between. She even travels fifty miles from her home in South Pittsburg to Pikeville to buy the best green tomatoes around. She wants to serve homegrown tomatoes as long as possible. It’s a sad moment when she announces, “These are the last of the home grown tomatoes.”
Nell’s goal is to serve tomatoes for her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. If she can keep them until November, that accomplishment comes with bragging rights. June said, “Although we are thankful for the turkey and fixings, we always talk about and wonder how long those tomatoes stayed under Mom’s bed. My mom truly is the Queen of Tomatoes.”
Does Nell’s wrapping each homegrown tomato in squares of Christmas tissue paper and sleeping with tomatoes under her bed trump my mother’s growing and canning and storing tomatoes? Maybe. How about this? June’s mother is the reigning Tomato Queen and my mother was the former queen.

Happy Birthday

I’ve never received so many birthday greetings. Or in so many different ways. More than six months ago, the government sent congratulations. An introductory paragraph stated, “Now that you are approaching …..” I stopped reading. I chose to not be reminded of the number that followed.
Every insurance company that offers Medicare A, B, C, D, and XYZ supplement programs mailed good wishes, or condolences, depending on my attitude the day I opened the mail. And then their representatives called. In their friendliest and most caring voices, each offered to stop by for a short visit, at my convenience, to discuss health care. I coined an official response “I’ve made my decision about health insurance for the rest of my life. It’s signed, sealed, and delivered.” That ended our budding relationships.
Finally, the end of July rolled around, and my birthday, with its looming number, could no longer be ignored. And, to be honest, I like celebrating birthdays, mine and everyone else’s. Thanks to the post office, Mark Zuckerberg, Ray Tomlinson, and Alexander Graham Bell, good wishes arrived. In my mailbox, on Facebook, through email, and over the phone.
A really good friend, mailed a card that read, “I know it’s your birthday, but I’ve forgotten your age!” Bless her heart. Wish I could. A Facebook post that read, “Happy Birthday to a sweet young lady that I had at 4-H camp for many years,” took me back to bunk beds, horseback riding, and jumping off a high dive. And I liked the e-card with the dancing bear that sang, “Each year is just a number. Count the friendships you hold in your heart.”
I got birthday wishes from my Grands. One-year-old Grand, 1300 miles away, giggled and kissed his computer screen. When I said, “Let’s pat a cake,” he clapped his hands. So I sat on my couch at my house, and he sat on his daddy’s lap at his house, and together we patted and rolled and threw tiny imaginary cakes. As we said good-bye, I caught all my Grand’s birthday waves and kisses. Thanks goodness for video chats.
After eating birthday cake at my Grands’ house that’s across town, my seven-year-old Grand announced, “Gran, we have a surprise for you.”
“It’s outside. Don’t come out yet,” his younger sister  said. My Grands ran back and forth from the outside picnic table to inside their house. They rummaged through their school supplies. “Don’t let Gran come outside!” they screamed.
Finally, I was invited to unveil the surprise. Two bath towels covered the picnic table and my present. Garden stepping stones. One made by, or for, each Grand. With handprints, names and ages. And decorated, kid-style, with colorful stones. Treasured gifts! “Look up, Gran! There’s your card.” A blue paper waved from a tree. Four-inch tall green letters had been scribbled from one side of the paper to the other, “Happy Birthday, Gran!” No numbers. No reminder of age. No “Now that you are approaching……” Just a piece of construction paper taped to a tree limb. A keepsake birthday card.