Monday, December 7, 2015

The Best Gifts

          An early memory of my grandmother was the task she would assign us after Thanksgiving dinner. She would sit us down with a paper and pencil and ask us for a list of presents we wanted for Christmas. The first time, I let my imagination wander, and listed several things that attracted my attention while browsing the Sears and Roebuck catalog. On Christmas morning, I was embarrassed to find that every single thing I had listed was under the tree for me, from Granny. Santa Claus was left with very little to bring. Many of the items had been just fleeting ideas, and while pulling off the ribbons and paper, I couldn’t recall asking for that particular toy or game.
          The next year, with a little more wisdom under my belt, I gave the list some thought, and only wrote down one thing. Granny provided prompts. “Maybe a nice dress?” she suggested, “Or, what about music? Write down some of your favorite songs.”
In my robe and slippers that December 25, I was glad to receive the special item I had wanted (though I certainly can’t remember what it was all these years later). The dress came from the finest department store in Granny’s city, and for each song I requested, she purchased the whole album, instead of the single I was expecting. One of the most popular songs of the day was a novelty piece called “Rubber Duckie”. True to form, I received the whole album of Sesame Street favorites. Since I was in 7th grade that year, I am quite sure I was the only one of my friends who received that particular gift.
          I began to dread finishing my pumpkin pie. I wished that Granny would take my list as a suggestion, not a purchase order. I hated appearing ungrateful, but I also didn’t like having the rest of the family thinking I was asking for too much. So, I followed the lead of my older cousins, and asked Granny for cash so that I could do my own shopping. I felt a little regret. I think she really enjoyed the hunt, the quest to bring us exactly the items we had asked for, in the perfect color and size. But, come Christmas morning, I was truly grateful, and didn’t have to endure the scrutiny of the rest of the family as I opened present after present.
          Flash forward past years of struggling to provide our own children with at least one of the very special items they dreamed of. Santa always managed to come through somehow.
          At a time of my life when we are able to purchase most of what we need and want throughout the year, there are not a lot of things on my Christmas list these days.  My husband does know me very well, however. So, he enjoys picking out one particular gift that will always make me smile, an addition to the Christmas village that graces my entryway. This indulges my love of decorating, and also sparks my imagination. One day, a holiday book is bound to be set in my very own itty bitty town.
          My favorite gifts are much less expensive, but infinitely more satisfying. I was presented with some of them over the past holiday weekend. A six year old grandson took comfort in my lap after a long day of family celebration. A precious grand-daughter wanted to be involved with meal preparation, and loved to brag about the special cake she and her mom made for us. My increasingly sullen teenaged grand presented me with joyful laughter as he and I played a rousing game of air hockey. The nine-year old and his smaller cousin shared some heartfelt hugs as they headed for home.
          I am looking forward to a few more of these fabulous presents when we travel to see the newest member of the family. I can’t wait for those bright eyed giggles and sloppy kisses.
          I can’t help thinking that the happiness I feel at this time of year must be much like the emotions that surrounded that manger in Bethlehem so long ago. After centuries of stories were passed from one generation to another, God was fulfilling His promise to send a king. No one could predict exactly what would take place in the life of that little baby. But there was wild, unbridled joy in the air. So much amazement at the unbelievable gift they had been given. So much hope for the future. Joy to the World! Oh come let us adore Him!
          May you receive all of His best gifts this holiday season, and look forward to a bright and beautiful new year.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Be Thankful in ALL Things

This time of year, we spend a lot of time expressing our happiness about the blessings we have been given in life.  Our homes, our jobs, our perfectly beautiful kids and grandkids. When we start listing good things, our cup runneth over.
But what about the times when circumstances are less than perfect?  When life seems to be giving us more lemons than anyone needs to make a good batch of lemonade? Can we really be thankful in those difficult times as well?
I spent thirty five years working for the State of Arkansas.  Though not always paid as well as comparable employees in the private sector, I did have an attractive retirement plan, so I began marking off my calendar when I was in my forties, planning for that magical date when I could stay at home and start drawing a retirement check.
My husband worked very hard as well, in a job that he was extremely good at , but that was hard on him physically.  Suddenly, our whole world was rocked when the sagging housing industry caused his long time employers to lay him off.  Though quite a shock to both our systems; things eventually worked out quite well.  He now has another job that he loves, and is not as damaging to his health. I retired for a short time, and then returned to work, in a less stressful position that allows a little more time to concentrate on my writing. Looking back, we are both thankful for that particular economic down-turn.
As an avowed aficionado of social media, I am following a family with a much more dramatic story.  This young couple received devastating news very early in their first pregnancy. Advised by physicians that their unborn child was severely handicapped, and would most likely not survive to be born alive, terminating the pregnancy seemed to be the best option. Because of their belief that God has a better plan, they decided to continue, and prepared to love this child for as long as they were allowed.
The mother of the baby started posting on the day their daughter was born, and survived, to the surprise of all of the medical experts. You can get the medical details on their Facebook page entitled  “ Prayers for the Pragels,”  but the bottom line is that eight months later, this little miracle brings all of us the most amazing smiles anyone can imagine.  With an under developed brain, each milestone in her life is totally unexpected, and cause for immediate rejoicing.
It might be hard for the immediate family to be thankful for this sweetheart’s diagnosis, but I know that the medical world must be. They are learning so much from her, and she is so inspiring to others who are going through similar issues.  We are all thankful that her brave parents are sharing their journey.
We frequently worship with a congregation of Christians that has continued to thrive beyond all expectations. Their beginnings came about because of a disagreement between their minister and the congregation he was serving. Feeling that he had no choice, he and a few close friends decided to worship together in any space that was available. That first place turned out to be the city hall of a small town in our region.  Borrowing song books, chairs, communion supplies, they pressed on, and actually thrived.
Their next meeting place was in an old service station/convenience store. This “cozy” space was often filled to capacity, and the excitement with which they approach their weekly services was palpable. As we speak, the congregation of around 70 and sometimes many more has moved to a new building, built for the most part through the love and labor of the members. No one would have ever expected to be thankful for a painful division with other believers, but one day, when the origins of this group are discussed, that may not be such a strange idea.
Once, a little girl in Southeast Kansas was devastated when her parents divorced. The next few years were a struggle on many fronts, but eventually her mother met and married a man from Arkansas. They moved to Saline County just before the girl’s senior year in High School, and the rest, as they say, is history.  If I could speak to that little girl today, would I tell her that one day she would be thankful for the intense pain she felt?  Of course not.  But with the benefit of many years of hindsight, I would have to admit that even that experience was one that I would never trade.

Let us be Thankful.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Leave the Island and Find Your Tribe

          It’s right there in the first book of the Bible- “And God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone’” Of course, there are times when we want peace and quiet and solitude, but to be happy and healthy, we need contact with others. In other words, if you’re going to be stranded on an island, hang out with Gilligan, rather than Tom Hanks and his soccer ball. Sharing an interest with others also means learning to speak their language.
          When hubby and I were dating, I wanted to be able to talk to him about the things he was interested in. It was not really too hard for me to learn to speak “car.”  My first real job out of high school was at the switchboard of a new car dealership. After my college classes were over for the day, I spent a few hours in front of the huge plate glass windows, watching the passing traffic. There were not a lot of phone calls coming in after 5:00.  I made a game out of trying to guess what model of vehicle was approaching, by the configuration of their headlights. The salesmen that worked there helped too, as knowledge of all things automotive was literally their bread and butter.
          My Prince Charming cheerfully accommodated me, as well. There were lots of things to learn, I am sure. If I wished that one of my friends would “break a leg” I really meant them no harm. This came from the school plays and summer theater productions I had been involved in. Actors, like athletes, are a superstitious lot. To guarantee that a performance would go well, there were rituals and traditions to be maintained. Before each show, we would gather for a short “pep talk” that always included an odd ceremony. Since I’ve not been in the habit for a long time, the details escape me, but I remember it involved standing in a circle holding hands and hopping on one foot. The “break a leg” thing was actually a form of reverse psychology. Wishing someone good luck would cause some catastrophe to occur. When I hear of an accident happening onstage, I always wonder if these actors skipped the “circle time” that night, or heaven forbid, someone yelled “Good luck” just before they ran out of the wings.
          We did share several things in common, as all good couples do. We both had a love of music, so driving around with the stereo cranked up was a perfectly acceptable date night for us. We both became very good at “Name That Tune” and would often challenge each other to guess the artist of a song we heard on the radio. As children were added to the back seat, they tolerated our duets, and became our biggest fans. Though I was born in Kansas, and he hailed from right here in Central Arkansas, we can belt out “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” almost as well as Conway and Loretta did.
          Not every aspect of my husband’s life came so naturally to me. He loves working with wood and building useful and beautiful furniture. I have listened as he extolled the virtues of one power tool over another and watched hours of television programs where the main objective is to transform a mediocre or inconvenient room to a modern and practical showplace. I put up with hours of watching a sink being installed so that when something slips or breaks in our own castle, the “king” will know what to do, or at the very least, who to call. The only drawback to this interest of his is that my car barely fits in the garage, which is now doubling for a well stocked workshop.
          The major leap for him, I know, has been to adjust to my love for reading and writing. He has grown used to seeing my nose in a book, and weathered the addition of reading glasses, and the flickering light of my Kindle reader. He endures my constant chatter about agents and publishers, and even my need to run off for long weekends of workshops and writing retreats. Some evenings, he wishes I would be sitting next to him, learning about his latest DIY project, instead of retreating to this keyboard to tap away on the story that won’t let me go. But, after years of togetherness, we have both adjusted.
          Last weekend, I quietly walked away as he conversed with a fellow woodworker, deciding on which new tool to add to his arsenal. This week he gamely accompanied me as I soaked in the beauty of a Shakespearean play. We both understand that, just like on the old TV show, “sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Know Your Limits- Then Give ‘em a Nudge

When we were young, the words “I can’t do that” were rarely uttered. We wanted to try it all, and were pretty sure there was nothing beyond our capabilities. There was also no reason to say no to adding more and more to our schedule. We had limitless energy, and thought there was no reason we couldn’t fill every hour of every day with fun activities.
 In junior high school, I was a little taller and a little heavier than most of the other girls. Since my physical education teacher was quite a bit shorter, she didn’t feel comfortable “spotting” me when we were learning gymnastic moves. So, while the smaller girls were doing hand-springs and cartwheels, I was mastering somersaults and other things that kept me closer to the ground.
I also remember not being the fastest one in gym class. When we did laps around the small lake across from the school, I was satisfied with completing the race, and didn’t worry about having the fastest time.
The closest I ever came to being an athlete was when I was a member of the marching band in high school. This appealed to me first because of my love for music, but the marching thing turned out to be fun, and provided a way to stay in shape in the bargain. This is also when my sister and my mother and I learned about time management. Mom was adamant that we participate in as many school activities as we wanted, so we were not allowed to have jobs that would interfere in any way. I picked up a little extra cash babysitting, but enjoyed being a member of the band, the choir, the drama club, as well as church activities and Girl Scouts. If there were limits imposed, we never felt them.
After hubby and I started a family of our own, things seemed to change. First, we pushed our own interests to the back burner, as the kids took up all of our time. We both had to work long hours just to keep them in food and diapers, and then when they got in school, to allow them to participate in their own activities. With three offspring, choices were made, and limits on the number of things they could be involved in were a difficult reality.
Eventually, all three chose the same two things that had been most important to us as  children, Scouts and band. This kept the whole family plenty busy, and soon every night of the week was packed with one activity or another. We learned several quick and easy recipes for suppers on the go, and go we did, in the typical all-American mini-van. We were on the sidelines, hauling equipment, chaperoning band trips, serving refreshments tail-gate style.
We eventually became the folks who stood in front of the school cafeteria to try to convince parents to become leaders. The script we were reading from said “Isn’t your child worth just one hour a week?” I didn’t read that part, because in truth it took a lot more time than that. But the sentiment was the same. They were worth it. Their childhood would be short, and in the blink of an eye, they would be gone, with families of their own to support.
Limits really boil down to priorities. For those who choose to be athletes, staying in condition and practicing becomes more important than anything else. Adults who want to spend time with their children find the time by sacrificing other things.
The older we get, the more our bodies play into the scheme of things. If we didn’t make exercise a priority when we were younger, it becomes harder now. So, when our time is freed up as our children require less of our attention, our bodies won’t allow us to try those long suspended activities. Limits become very real.
There is a fine line, though, between recognizing limits and giving up. It would be easy to dismiss an idea with: “Sorry, I haven’t been able to do that in years.” Or “I just don’t have the time for that.” Oh yes, sitting in that recliner in front of some meaningless display on a flickering screen is relaxing and appealing. The more we do it, the easier it is to continue.

I know that my body needs more rest now.  But, I know that even though it may be tougher than it used to be, I need to continue to get up and move. And maybe I won’t be the voice at the front of the room, or the one riding the school bus to the next competition, but surely there is time to be a part, to stay involved. All I need is an occasional nudge.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Welcoming takes Effort

On my weekly trip to the grocery store, I noticed a sign hanging above the rows of shopping carts that said “Welcome. We are glad you are shopping with us today.”  It was a simple sentiment, but I thought for a moment that it wasn’t easy for the owners of the store to bring me a greeting before I even got inside. It took at least one person with a good ladder more than a few minutes to make sure this message was placed in just the right spot. Inside, as I stood near the avocados and tomatoes, a clerk came up behind me. “Excuse me ma’am. Let me wipe this up.”  He bent to clean up a small mess I hadn’t noticed on the floor behind me. “Wouldn’t want you to slip. Evidently, someone tried to make guacamole, and forgot to take it with them.” This particular market is always clean and inviting, and it makes the desired impression. But, it does take work to keep it that way.
          At home, we want to make our guests feel welcome. We try to provide a place for them to sit without having to move anything, and if they spend the night, there is a comfortable bed, and a convenient bathroom, stocked with the necessities. I have learned that providing for visitors varies by the age of the person I am trying to comfort. In this weather, having a fresh pitcher of iced tea usually does the trick for the adults.  The youngest visitors may enjoy the well stocked toy box in our guest room, and my grand-children expect the freezer to be full of “poss-pickles.” This also means that there should be a few good places to sit on the front porch, which is a great spot to enjoy a frozen treat on a hot day.
          Just inside my front door, my Mama’s cedar chest provides the perfect platform for a seasonal tableau. In the springtime, it holds an Easter basket with colored eggs, daffodils and bunnies. Summertime brings out the latest pictures taken of the grandchildren enjoying Granny camp. Of course, when Christmas is a-coming, my lighted Christmas village sparks nostalgic memories for all who enter. In fact, this same scene re-emerges for a week during my Christmas in July celebration. Okay, maybe that display in the entryway is more about me after all. Hopefully, though, others notice and appreciate it.
          Outside, we want our houses to make a good first impression. The realtors call this “curb appeal” but there is not a lot of science to it. Our porches are relatively clean and well lit, the doorbell works, the yard is mowed before the wilderness reclaims the place. Healthy plants and flowers also promote a feeling of happiness and comfort for our friends and neighbors. In our region, the crepe myrtle tree is an easy solution, as they thrive here. With a little pruning during the winter, they provide a colorful display along our roads and in our flower beds. Best of all, the Arkansas summer doesn’t defeat them, the way it does the rest of us.
          The new congregation we worship with has in the neighborhood of 500 in attendance each Sunday morning. Recently, a debate on their Facebook page underscored a quandary about making visitors welcome. Some expressed hesitancy to greet someone they didn’t recognize. “What if,” they said, “this person has been attending for years, and I just never noticed them before?” The consensus was to err on the side of being friendly. The proper greeting is, “I don’t believe I have met you. I’m ‘so and so’. What is your name?” Even with such a large group of people, this has worked well, as several people have spoken to us each time we joined them, and many have learned our names. We definitely feel welcomed.
          When we do something nice for someone, and they say “Thank-you,” our response is usually, “You’re welcome.” In the Spanish language, the reply to “Gracias” is often “De Nada” which loosely means “it was nothing.” In this case, I think I like the English language tradition better. When we go out of our way to be nice, it isn’t “nothing.” It takes effort, as it should.
          As the long hot summer nears an end, I hope you have been able to stay cool, and perhaps have enjoyed some of my reading suggestions. If my columns have cheered you at all, or made you feel good about your own efforts to make others happy, you’re welcome.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Could We Please All Decide on One Flag?

Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, the flag of the United States of America. We all grew up pledging allegiance to this symbol. It is carried all over the world as a symbol of unity, of freedom and justice for all of our citizens. It has been changed and adapted over the years as more states joined the Union. We try to teach our children proper respect, and the proper ways to display our banner. On this topic, the majority of us easily agree.
          Another flag has recently been in the news, and although we don’t enjoy controversy and disagreement, this flag is bound to be discussed in many places in our country, especially in the South. I’m referring to the Confederate  Battle Flag, the banner that is remembered for  representing  the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
          I believe that the Confederate flag has a proper place in American culture. It is a part of our history, and should be used to commemorate a great struggle that defined our country. The definition of Commemorate is to use a symbol or a ceremony to remind people of an important event or person from the past. Children today will not remember the Civil War, nor will their parents or grandparents. A commemoration is proper, to be sure that they know about this pivotal point in their country’s history.
          Some form of the Confederate flag is often used by people who have no intention of teaching hatred. They are simply showing how proud they are to live in the south. It was famously displayed on the top of a great car in a 1980s TV series that still plays in reruns.  However, for someone whose family and friends have endured abuse and dishonor for generations, this symbol causes only fear and pain.
          I suppose the closest my family can come to understanding the negative feelings generated by this flag is to recall a painful chapter in our own family tree. My husband’s mother was a descendant of one of the survivors of the Mountain Meadows massacre. The infamous attack on the wagon train from Arkansas occurred before the Civil War. It took a long time for the surviving children to come home and tell their story. For years, the murderers covered up and denied what had really happened. Justice was a long time coming, and the families here at home never quite got over that event, even as the original survivors died off. As the attack  finally became a part of the past, the family continued to teach their children the truth of that terrible day.
          Imagine if, over a hundred years later, there was still someone coming to Arkansas, disturbing our peaceful lives to remind us of the hateful things that happened so long ago, and even suggesting that the murders were somehow justified.  How would we feel? Of course, the people who were responsible are long dead, but the emotions would be easily stirred again.
          The atrocities committed against our black friends and neighbors did not stop at the end of the war. Shamefully, they continued into the twentieth century. Many people who are still alive witnessed terrible things that were done to their families simply because of the way they looked, or where they lived. If the Confederate flag revives those memories, it is totally understandable that they would be upset.
          After the terrible murders in South Carolina, we must place ourselves in the shoes of those who have been so recently harmed. Those people were targeted for no other reason than the color of their skin. This is a hard truth, but one that we must face squarely. Those who were killed had welcomed this young man with open arms. If we could speak to them now, they would most likely tell us that they have forgiven him. That is the kind of people they were. But those of us who remain owe them something. It is time to make a change. Time to put the past firmly behind us and move on to the future.
          This week, I have seen many people displaying the Confederate flag “Just because I can.” I agree wholeheartedly that they have the right to do so. People have died defending their right to do and say whatever they want. However, when we have a chance to make a positive statement, rather than a negative one, we should think twice about doing something just because we can. If our expression becomes a stumbling block for someone else, is it really worth it? We are also allowed to reach out in love to all of our brothers and sisters. Isn’t this a much better way to spend our time?

          On a battlefield important to the Civil War, President Lincoln dedicated his Gettysburg Address to “a new birth of freedom.” We have a perfectly good banner to rally around. One that promotes freedom for all, and unity of purpose. Let’s keep the Confederate flag for special commemorations and to honor the graves of its soldiers. Let’s put things of the past in the past. Going forward, let’s all display the American flag with pride. One nation under God,  indivisible. With liberty and justice for ALL.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Get your Books in a Row for the Summer

It’s time once again to prepare for the best and worst of times in the Ouachita region- our blazing summer. If you are fortunate enough to have an escape planned, I am here to recommend a few “must-haves” for your suitcase. If your routine will change very little, here’s hoping this list will help divert your attention from the droning weatherman and his never changing forecast. Turn the TV volume down, the air conditioner up, and have yourself a vacation in the pages of a good book.
My long-time fans know that I love Christian fiction. When I do have time to escape, I love nothing more than a heart-touching story with a happy ending. So if you’re the guns-a- blazing, missile dodging, end of times type . . . well, to each his or her own. Maybe one of these books will catch your eye when you’re ready for a break from all that stress!
First up- a contemporary story from Kim Vogel Sawyer, who also writes very good historical novels. This one, “When Mercy Rains” takes place in a Mennonite community. Similar to the Amish in their love of simplicity and biblical truth, this family has been rocked by an out of wedlock pregnancy and the secrets that have accompanied it for years afterwards. When the young mother and her teenage daughter return to tend to the aging matriarch of the family, they all must come to terms with the truth, and their feelings for each other. An excellent multi-generational read. I have already ordered the sequel- “When Grace Sings.”
The latest story in Rachel Hauck’s series about fictional royalty is “How to Catch a Prince.” Like her others, it deals with the clashing worlds of European royalty and modern-day America. This time, what comes between our star-crossed lovers is a shared burden dealing with war-time tragedy that has altered both of them. There’s a touch of magic that relieves the sadness, and ultimately engineers the happy ending. Oops, Spoiler Alert.
Speaking of series- One of my absolute favorites chronicles the Christiansen family of Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior. These contemporary tales draw me in over and over again as we get to know and love each member of the large, active family. If you’re new to Susan May Warren’s world- start with “Take a Chance on Me”. The succeeding books all have song-title names, and the one I finished most recently, “Always on My Mind” was equally satisfying. The heroes and heroines in these books are real people with real flaws. Mistakes they have made in the past can never quite be ignored, as they struggle to find their futures. They draw on the stability of a loving family, and their trust in God to get them to where they are meant to be.
As always- a summer reading list needs a cold weather tale. This time-it’s a collection of stories that take place during the Second World War. Three Christmas Carols popular during that period spark the stories in “Where Treetops Glisten” by Tricia Goyer, Cara Putman and Sarah Sundlin. I knew that Tricia, who lives right here in Central Arkansas, was great at writing stories from this time period, but the other two ladies were new to me. A delightful way to experience the romance of the “Greatest Generation” and cool down several degrees at the same time.
Two more Arkansas authors teamed up to produce “Swept Away,” a romance in the Quilts of Love series from Abingdon Fiction. Laura V. Hilton and Cindy Loven piece together a tale of a couple who seems helpless to counteract the designs of a very determined grandmother. Well crafted, warm and comforting, like every good quilt should be.
Currently, I’m immersed in “To Win Her Favor,” Tamera Alexander’s  latest
Belle Meade plantation novel. Set in post Civil War Tennessee, this story begins where most other romances end, with a wedding. As many unions of the time, love at first sight is not a factor here, but I can’t wait to see how the couple who were brought together by a piece of land learn to love each other as much.
Next up, another Arkansas friend of mine, Shannon Vannatter, has a new Rodeo romance that I can’t wait to read.  “Rodeo Reunion” will come out in June, and I’m sure it will offer another swoon-worthy hero and another pretty Texas cowgirl. Believe it or not, I was mentioned in the dedication of her last one, “Rodeo Family.” Believe me, I would recommend these books, even if I’d never met this sweet lady. Look for this one wherever Heartsong Presents is sold.

So many stories, so little time. Get ready, it’s going to be a long, hot summer!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mary, Mary- Contrary is Not Always a Bad Thing

          Back in the day, gardening was a survival technique. Families grew the food they needed on their own property. They used what they could, shared with the neighbors, and spent hours preserving it for the leaner days ahead. Trips into town were rare, and rarely needed.
          Times have changed. We have become more mobile, and more dependent on others to provide our food. For many, the joy of planting something and watching it grow has remained. Hopefully, we have retained enough knowledge in our DNA that we could revert to raising what is needed to support ourselves.
          In our family, we learned from the best. James’ parents were serious gardeners. At times, they tended as much as half an acre, full of every variety of vegetable you can imagine. Their freezer occupied nearly half of the kitchen, and it was an ever present source of tasty, healthy goodness.  The whole family learned well at their knees, and on their knees, tilling, planting, weeding, waiting, and eventually harvesting.
          As the physical stress of maintaining the garden became too much, Paw-paw transitioned to using five gallon buckets, which could be tended to from a movable chair. After a move to a new location with very rocky soil, a good friend brought a thoughtful gift, a load of rich soil dumped in the front yard. By this time in his life, gardening was more than survival; it was a source of comfort and security.
          My own parents were not as dedicated to growing food at home. My divorced Mom had very little time for such things, while working to support us. We did have a small patch behind the garage that provided tomatoes and pole beans. I saw this as a treasure hunt, and loved to venture out to see what I could find. My Dad and his wife shared a spot a short distance from their home in a modern sub-division. During our summer-time visits, I was in charge of searching the cucumber patch, and was amazed at the speed with which these little green wonders went from fingerlings to basket fillers.
          While raising our own kids here in the Ouachita region, we did dabble at raising veggies from time to time. Our yard in eastern Saline County had a very fertile spot in the back corner, and it supported rows of tomatoes, peppers, Brussels’ sprouts and okra. The kid’s grandparents actually took more pride in this endeavor than we did. I remember at least one occasion when James’ dad was out in the garden, whipping our okra plants into submission. Although it sounds strange, his technique actually worked. After he had removed the extra greenery, the energy of the plant went to producing fruit- the slimy green pods that we loved to add to a pot of gumbo, or fry up as a crispy treat. 
          Our daughter and her daddy also tended a smaller spot once. All tomatoes, as I recall, She didn’t go for any of that other stuff.
At the same house, our neighbor had a row of varied plants next to the chain link fence that separated our yards. I didn’t mind that his vines crept up the fence, because our agreement was that anything that managed to poke through the holes and grow on our side belonged to us. Another chance to reap unexpected treasures.
These days, my gardening is purely decorative. We have some very nice flower beds with a variety of seasonal and perennial plants. I retained the love for fresh veggies in the summer, but my craving can be met with a trip to the farmer’s market on the courthouse square. Also, of course, it helps that I am married to the produce man in our local grocery.
In the youngest generation, all is not lost. Our grand-daughter dearly loves planting flowers, and the oldest grandson holds the record for the greenest thumb of all. His success story started one evening when he was eating an apple at our house, in the dead of winter.  Having learned that apples grow on trees which sprout from seeds, he wanted to plant a tree of his own. We found a spot in my flower bed, and planted six seeds. Weeks later, three tiny plants sprouted, and one actually grew into a tree that was taller than the young dreamer’s grandpa! Because it was approaching the eaves of our house, we had to move the sapling out into the yard, where it failed to thrive. Partly, I am sure because of the bright summer sun, but mostly because the possessor of the pixie dust lived several hundred miles away. It was a lesson for all of us; that faith has as much to do with growing big and strong as science ever could.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor this year, and don’t forget to teach your kids and grands about the wonders of God’s creation. The joys will return to you ten-fold.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What's Really Important

          Over recent years, I have watched enough television on non-network channels to diagnose my own condition. I am quite certain I am not a hoarder. I don’t keep candy bar wrappers, or stack up egg cartons. I am not a collector, either. If I buy a stuffed toy or popular movie, it certainly does not stay in its original package, and I’m not obsessed about having every piece from any set.
          No, what I am is a “treasurer”. Make no mistake; I am not volunteering to be the club member in charge of collecting dues and paying bills. What I mean is that I do tend to keep a few objects around longer than other non-afflicted people might count as normal, but it is all because of the connection, the stories that go along with these items. One man’s junk becomes my treasure.
          I am certain to be able to provide a story for every unusual item you might find in my house. The brass bells hanging on the door between my kitchen and my laundry room set up a happy cacophony every time someone moves that door. They made the same noise in my grandmother’s house when I was a child. I was certain that I would have to fight to remove them from her estate, but evidently those memories were not as vivid for my cousins, so in this granny’s house is where they now reside.
          In the corner of our dining room, a handsome corner hutch holds plates, cups, knick knacks. It is the hutch itself that is important, as it was crafted by my very talented husband, in our own garage. Go ahead, try and name a price for that. Your efforts will be fruitless.
          Another hand-crafted item sits in my bedroom, holding a potted plant. This little three legged table was made by my father, when he was a student in a high school shop class. For years, it held the rotary-dial telephone in the heart of our house. Since the cord didn’t reach very far, I held many a whispered conversation in its vicinity during my early teens.
          Hanging on the living room wall is a more modern decoration. A little ballet of clock movements is performed at the top of each hour. Purchased by my mother at a local jewelry store, she said it was advanced payment for the trouble she was bound to cause me in her later years. These days, it brings a constant melodious smile to my world.
          Of course, there are also more traditional keepsakes. Photo albums, scrapbooks, journals all give a very tangible picture of the members of my family past and present. For me, the handwritten thoughts are as precious as the visual reminders. I have a tiny glimpse of who that person was on the inside.
          I was reminded of these things when a young family member recently lost her home and many of her possessions in a fire. The community will help provide the necessities of daily living, furniture, clothing, dishes, appliances. But what of those special little items that hold so much significance. Those losses leave a person really feeling empty, I am sure.
          In Steve Martin’s movie, “The Jerk”, he is being evicted from his house, and is selecting a few items to take along with him.(Loosely quoted) “All I need”, the character says, “is this chair. And my teddy bear, and this drinking glass.” As he wanders through the house, each item he passes reaches out, and he can’t bear to leave any of it. He soon becomes over burdened with important stuff. It’s not the monetary value, it’s the emotional attachment that we feel along with him.
          At this point in our lives, hubby and I are trying to downsize, and the possibility exists that we might soon have to pack up our important stuff to take to a new location. Decisions will be made, items will be looked at with fresh eyes. Is it really important that I keep the toys my kids played with as children? Probably not. But, that little dime-store statue of a pair of swans one of them bought with his own allowance as a Mother’s Day gift? The silver jewelry box engraved with “Mom” purchased when my oldest son and his fiancĂ© were shopping for gifts for their wedding attendants? The Precious Moments figurine that sat on my daughter’s dresser until she left to start her own household?
          In the words of the little Chihuahua in the old commercial: “I think I need a bigger box.”


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Snow . . . Well, Maybe . . .

          In the words (loosely translated) of an old poet- “The best laid schemes of mice and men quite often go awry.” Around here, the most common reason for that derailment is the unpredictability of the Arkansas weather.
          This winter, we almost literally held our breath through December and January. In spite of a few days with some seriously cold temperatures, the precipitation associated with after Christmas bargain hunting and white sales stayed largely to our north and east. We just knew that at any point, the other snow boot could drop, and we’d be in for a white February.
          Sure enough, many parts of our region got pounded by an icy blast, leaving slick streets and stranded motorists in its wake. Even though we had been lucky to that point, by the end of the week after Valentine’s Day, we had had enough, and were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the daffodils. It’s not that we hate winter; it’s just that it can be so doggoned inconvenient. Many of us would have been glad to work, if we could get our vehicles out of our driveways. Staying home and enjoying a hot cup of cocoa became the only option.
          Winter is not the only season when Mother Nature can foil our plans. We have all learned to have at least one alternative ready, no matter how long we have looked forward to an outdoor activity.
          As a high school band student, one of the biggest honors is to be selected to be your state’s representative in the Cherry Blossom Festival parade in Washington, DC. My group, from a small Kansas town about the size of Arkadelphia raised funds for well over a year for our fifteen minutes of fame. We boarded buses on our spring break from school and made the twenty-seven hour trip, eager to show that the early morning and long after school practices would pay off. On the day of the big parade . . . the rain came down in torrents. Faced with the idea of going home without performing, our band booster parents came up with a solution to help protect our brand new uniforms and expensive instruments. The improvisation gave us a new name: The Marching Garbage bags. Undaunted, we played our hearts outs, and finally broke ranks at the end of the route to run to the safety of the buses.
          Another youthful adventure that seems to always break a drought is a camping trip. One hot summer, our third year summer camp scheduled an excursion called wilderness camp. The plan was that we would carve a campsite out of an undeveloped spot in the woods, clear a place to cook safely, dig our own bathroom facility, and sleep in hammocks, instead of tents. Digging in the rain was not too bad, cooking under a tarp was bearable, but oh the misery of zipping a sleeping bag over my head and swinging from dripping tree branches at night. No one could have planned a better character building exercise than that one.
          I recalled that time many years later, when I volunteered with our sons’ scout troop.  This time, sleeping was done in nice, dry tents. The highlight of the weekend was a competition where the boys were to construct camp furniture by lashing sticks together. Our troop had practiced at home, and knew exactly what they wanted to do. After their surprise that there was no cancellation due to the heavy downpour, I witnessed a minor miracle. I remember the pure joy on their faces, as they looked around and realized that all of the other teams were operating under the same situation. How did they deal with it? By pitching in, working as a team, and laughing all the way. The one thing I don’t recall about that contest is who received the prize. I think we all won that day.
          Last year, our family was very happy to attend the wedding of a couple who was dear to all of our hearts. Both had been married before, but were certain that this time the golden bands would be on the right left hands. The ceremony was to be held in a pavilion in the city park, with informality and simple beauty the theme of the day. Surely, we thought, even a little shower wouldn’t hurt, since the pavilion was large enough to accommodate all of the guests that were expected. That day, though, there was more than a little shower. The grounds around the covered picnic spot were soaked and muddy, and there was no sign that the sun would appear at all, even for a short time. So, an emergency move to a very gracious church fellowship hall saved the day, and provided a terrific place for eating and visiting afterwards. Dry and happy smiles dominate the wedding pictures, and the day could not have been more perfect.
          The moral of these stories?  Be prepared, but  prepare to be unprepared. Sometimes, the worst laid plans may be the best after all.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Imagine Them in Their Underwear

          After a recent presentation, a member of the audience asked me how my career as a State of Arkansas employee had led me to be a storyteller. I laughed at that thought, because as I explained, the storytelling definitely came before the “day job”. We don’t often take a look back at what shaped who we are. Why do some things seem to come easier to us than they do to others?
          Some of my lack of hesitation in getting up to speak may be genetic.  Mom was president of her high school class, and a chief rabble rouser for her professional women’s sorority.  Dad led defensive driving courses as part of his career as a State Trooper. He was the one who advised me that when speaking before a crowd, you should imagine that they are all sitting there in underclothes, making you the most “put together” and prepared person in the room. I actually never practiced that, for fear of breaking into laughter.
          Looking back, it seems that I had plenty of practice on the “stage”. Sunday school and Bible School programs started very early.  In elementary school, our teachers constantly gave us opportunities to sing, or even to memorize lines. I believe my first speaking part was as a forlorn, rejected Christmas tree.
          In Junior High, our choir director had bigger ambitions, with a presentation of “Sadie Shaw from Arkansas”, and then a series of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. My role as Katisha in the Mikado required a three hour trip to the beauty salon for a huge, jet-black beehive hairdo, complete with knitting needles spiked through it. I remember being required to wear this look to school on the day of the opening performance. The eight-grader playing Yum Yum endured a similar trial, so we sought each other for sympathetic hugs in the hallway as our friends passed by, barely concealing their snickers.
          As a young teen, I joined Sing Out, a division of the Up with People franchise, which involved providing entertainment for civic groups and youth gatherings. We excelled in upbeat music with some “groovy” choreography that would have made the Brady Bunch envious.
          High School brought classes in Public Speaking and Drama, and my sister and I participated in summer theater. One production of “The Bells are Ringing” cast us as part of a chorus line for “The Midas Touch”. High kicks and poo-poo-pe-doos were performed in sparkling gold tights and spray painted tennis shoes. The next year, the show was Finian’s Rainbow, which included a number called “The Begat”.  On Broadway and in the movie, this one was performed by minstrels in top hats and tails. Our version featured the same Midas Touch girls, dressed in black instead of gold. During that next school year, one of my friends and I reprised the routine for drama tournaments, and won awards for our fancy footwork .
          Understandably, by the time I was grown and married, I was no longer timid about speaking, singing or dancing in front of others. What could possibly be more embarrassing than what I had already experienced? This naturally led to being a Cub Scout leader, Roundtable Commissioner, and Mother Nature at Cub Scout Day Camp.
          The younger the audience, of course, the easier it was to perform. Young campers loved the tales that were told while walking down a wooded path. The older boys came up with ways to participate. One of their favorite routines involved me telling the Cubs that they should be very quiet, because they might hear a baby deer calling to its mother. Then, the hidden Boy Scout would shout “Hey Mom!” Shy and timid were not words used to describe those young men.
          As Roundtable chair, I dealt with adults. It was a little harder to convince them to put their inhibitions aside for a silly song, but leading by example, it could be accomplished. At a rather serious banquet on the last night I was serving as commissioner, I couldn’t resist an audience participation song. Entitled “Man With a Head Like a Ping Pong Ball” (to the tune of the William Tell Overture) this one was particularly appropriate when performed by gentlemen with very little hair. Keeping my composure while leading that one from the front of the room was not easy.
          This relative ease helped when my role at work became that of trainer. I was able to put my students at ease while discussing topics that were very difficult for them to grasp. It’s always easier to learn if the teacher seems to be comfortable with the topic.
          So, now I enjoy each opportunity I get to tell a story, whether in writing, or in person. I have been doing this longer than I have been a column writer, or a state employee. I do it because I love it, because it is a big part of who I am. Thanks for being such a great audience.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

The year in the Rear View

Right about now, we are all enduring countless looks back at 2014. The best of this, the worst of that. On and on and on. And ON.  But, this exercise is actually biblical. Paraphrasing part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report”.  We are advised to “think on these things”. So, I prefer to look back on the good, and only reflect on the bad long enough to shake it off and move on.
One big lesson I was reminded of this year is to be careful what you wish for. As a writer, I have followed the custom of choosing one particular word to guide my year. At the beginning of this past one, I chose the word “Agile”.  I visualized myself waiting on the tennis court, racquet in hand, ready for whatever life should lob my way. Ever watchful, ready to react. A healthy attitude, right?
So, before the year was half over, I was offered a new day job. I was not unhappy with the existing one. It was exciting new territory for me, and with very pleasant and professional co-workers. But, over the net the new offer came, and each time I batted it away, it came back. Finally, due to the persistence of the swatter on the other side of the court, I made the leap. The result, on this side of the net, I am appreciated and comfortable, in a more familiar landscape. Agility and flexibility paid off in a big way.
Another lesson, Love has no age limit. A very dear in-law of mine finally had the dream-come- true wedding she had longed for.  At this stage in life, there was no need for an elaborate or expensive plan. The event occurred at the annual family reunion (keep those redneck jokes to yourself, thank-you). Rain caused the whole thing to be moved from a city park to a church fellowship hall, but this much loved couple was celebrated properly with smiles, hugs, and of course lots of food at the indoor picnic that followed. In the words of a recent celebrity from Louisiana- “Happy, Happy, Happy.”
I learned that one of the most valuable jobs in our current culture is that of “Estate sale coordinator”. I found myself emotionally and physically overwhelmed by the task of sorting through, distributing and disposing of generations of possessions and memorabilia. Enter a very compassionate young woman with wonderful hugs and an energetic family. She helped me move, box up and throw out what seemed to be mountains of . . . Stuff. She had an eye for things that might be of monetary value, and the connections to verify that fact. She also possessed the sensitivity to spot things that might be meaningful, and meant to be passed along to kids, grands, and greats. Of course, we were helped in this regard by notes from the owner- “Important, Keep This.” When all was said and done, each family member had a few precious items to treasure. There was also enough money to be divided up so that we could each add to our own collections of important stuff.
An obvious fact I was reminded of is that one piece of news can change everything, especially when that news announces a new baby on the way. I had two of these announcements on my radar this year.
One was from a young lady whose path through life has never been easy. She communicates with me infrequently from miles away, using texts and social media. This prompted a helpless feeling, as I walked the line between judging the bad decisions she has made, and reminding her how much she is loved and valued. I assumed the role of  Jiminy Cricket, reminding of her of what she knows are the right things to do, and offering a listening ear and lots of prayers when needed. Long distance love, along with an occasional package of warm clothes for the new little one and treats for her mommy will be the best I can offer.
In contrast, our family is also expecting a new arrival in the Sunshine State. Grandchild number five will have every benefit of lots of loving relatives and friends. In advance of his arrival just after the first of the coming year, he already has a name, and a nursery full of furniture and clothing. His parents are absorbing advice, trying not to worry, enjoying each moment.  For his Arkie Grandpa and me, the coming year promises to be one of quick weekend trips to the south and east, with maybe a longer vacation thrown in.
Meanwhile, we will enjoy every chance we get with the current offspring. Beaming proudly at basketball and baseball games, chattering on the telephone about scout meetings and band concerts, finding special recipes to cook together.
As you can see, I don’t spend long looking back. Borrowing a phrase from a more recent philosopher- “The future’s so bright, I’ve got to wear shades!” Oh, and the word for this year- “Proclaim!” I am resolving to get the word out, in any way possible. You’ll definitely be hearing more from me.