Monday, December 5, 2016

Christmas- The Ultimate Comfort Zone

Before you really get started reading this column, close your eyes for just a minute, and picture yourself on Christmas morning. Really. I promise I’ll be here when you get back. One, two, three, close ‘em.
Open again? Okay. So where were you? What were you doing. What did you see, hear, smell?
I’ll share first. I am at my grandmother’s house. The house is quiet, except for my Granny’s humming as she cooks. I can hear the clicking of her basset hound’s toenails on the linoleum floor as she follows Granny around the kitchen. The smell of corned beef hash wafts through the living room. The little aluminum Christmas tree glows brightly in the reflected light of the round multi-colored light machine. Unwrapped toys still sit under the tree, with neatly folded bathrobes and slippers and other warm clothes nearby. We would have a quiet breakfast, just my Mom and sister and me and Granny (and Sam the Basset hound). Soon, my aunt and cousins will return for dinner and playing outside in the South Central Kansas snow.
Your memories are probably much different. But it is not hard to conjure up a Christmas memory. They stick and stay in our heads, and we bring them out when we need to be in a happy place.
 If I try again, and fast forward to when our kids were small, the scene will be similar. Some presents are unwrapped under an artificially green tree in our living room, but Santa’s special surprises: a Cabbage Patch doll, a Pound Puppy and a new pair of cowboy boots wait proudly for the first sleepy-head to emerge from the bedroom. I sit with my cup of hot tea and soak up the precious silence. Santa had come through once again, though my husband and I had wondered how he would manage with our meager paychecks. Outside, the Arkansas sun shines brightly, and I am actually thankful that there is no snow. Here in the foothills of the Ouachitas, slick roads would keep the grandparents from coming over later to watch the kids enjoy their new things. The big dinner the night before had been at their house, and I will most likely serve sandwiches today, along with any leftovers that might arrive with them. For now, heavenly peace.
 Yes, the faces around the tree change, the size and value of the presents vary, but there are constants. Things seem familiar, comfortable.
 Now that our kids are grown, our new normal is that we very rarely manage to have all of our offspring in the same room at the same time. We enjoy each one when we get to see them, no matter the date on the calendar. The tree goes up earlier, stays up longer, to accommodate their schedules. That is fine for me, as I have more of those quiet moments, more time to remember Christmases past.
 Not everyone adjusts to changes in the Christmas routine as easily. The same memories that bring us joy, also cause pain. The absence of familiar faces diminishes our joy. We need to be aware of this, and reach out to those who suffer during the holidays.
 The first Christmas was not comfortable for the young couple who had traveled a great distance to find a “No Vacancy” sign, and a baby who was born in a building intended for animals. They knew, though that something amazing was happening, having heard from angels, and visitors who came to gaze in amazement at the future king. This story is the constant that keeps Christmas so special for all of us. The realization that no matter what else happens in this world, God keeps His promises. Whether in a festive room full of friends and family, or alone in the flickering light of a fireplace, Christmas encourages us, prompts us to look around, to reach out to each other. Let’s remember the hope that filled that tiny, smelly stable so long ago. Comfortable or not, enjoy your Christmas celebration this year!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Raised to Back the Blue

          My TV debut at age three was very exciting.  I have only vague memories of appearing on a locally produced show that was broadcast to our hometown and surrounding areas. It was fun sitting with the other kids and watching cartoons, and waiting for our turn to talk to the host, and his microphone. This is the part that made my mother, in the studio audience, very nervous.  You see, I had two well meaning- translate that ornery- teenaged neighbor boys who had been helping me rehearse for this moment. Along with learning to repeat my name, address and age, they coached me to answer the question “What does your Daddy do?” with the answer “Drinks beer.” I can remember sitting on the curb with them as they dissolved with laughter after my sweet pronouncement. The answer would have been embarrassing to any mother, but in this town where everyone knew everyone, they also knew that my Daddy really spent his days and nights as the local state trooper. Luckily, that question didn’t come up during the interview, and Mama’s nerves were preserved.
          My Daddy and his police car were a common sight in our little town. I remember standing by with pride when he led the college homecoming parade down our main street with his lights and siren blaring. Another early memory involves the time I had taken a spill, and he used it to transport me to the emergency room for stitches in my chin. So, yes, I must confess I have ridden in the back of a police car once in my life.
          The other policemen in town were our friends, and we spent time with them and their families during their precious off hours. Since I was the older of two girls, my Daddy was often assigned the duty of keeping me out of Mama’s hair, so we would go for a ride (in our private car) to one of his buddy’s houses. Not many people know that the sheriff in our Kansas county was the owner of a parakeet. I was captivated by this pet, and must have begged for one, because we had a few in our house when I was small.
          My parents divorced when I was five.  But, we were still very close to the law enforcement community. We would always wave at policemen as they passed. We always still viewed them as our friends.
          As I grew up, I learned that a policeman’s job was not always glamorous. My dad was fortunate never to be seriously injured while on duty, but he did have a glass baby bottle broken over his nose during a family disturbance, and his eyebrows were singed when he pulled someone out of a burning car. He did, of course, continue on the force in his new home, ending up on the Kansas Turnpike for most of his career. His fifteen minutes of fame came when the Kansas City Star newspaper did a feature story about him. They reported that he spent many more hours changing tires and rescuing stranded motorists than he did issuing speeding tickets.
          With a background like this, it is predictable that my husband and I raised our kids to respect and admire police officers. Where other children may have seen them as someone who would take them to jail if they did wrong, our kids were taught to seek the men in uniform when they were lost or in any trouble. We knew that these men and women were public servants, with our best interests in mind, and that they had families at home who couldn’t wait for them to return safely after their shift was over.
          Today, with criticism of police officers showing up from all directions, we tend to want to hear their side of the story. Of course, there are some who should not be wearing the badge. Just like there are probably some very poor examples of human resource analysts and monthly magazine columnists out there. But, overall, these young men and women have pledged to support us, and we should return the favor.
          I still wave at police officers, and often tell them “Thank-you” for standing in the gap for us. They are all someone’s son, or daughter, someone’s brother or sister, someone’s Mama, or if the kids are very lucky, someone’s Daddy.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Finally! Fall Festivities

  It’s October in the Ouachitas, and not a moment too soon. Summer wasn’t all that bad, really. We had a lot more rain than usual, and only the expected number of really hot days. But Autumn in Arkansas. Now THAT is why we all love living here. Can I get a Woo Pig for that? So, because I am in a festive and frivolous mood, here’s what I am most looking forward to in the weeks ahead:
        Fairs:  Our county already had theirs, and we enjoyed it with two of our grands this year. However- one past memory of that same fair came to mind as I smelled the funnel cakes and tripped over the power cords in the midway. When hubby and I were first dating, I informed him that I loved carnivals, but the whirly rides, like tea-cups and tilt-a-whirls had never worked for me. They triggered my motion sickness in quite drastic fashion. “Oh come on, scaredy cat.” Or something to that effect. Well, I decided there was only one way to prove it to him. So, with an unfortunate tag along friend, we boarded a ride that whirled and rose into the air, and went round and round, and .. . . about halfway through, my supper came up all over them. Point well taken. He never forced me onto a ride again.
        Festivals: Our hometown has a really fabulous one on the town square. I’ll wager that wherever you are, you can find one too. Folks with various talents and products set up booths, and there is always a lot of activity to fill a fall day. One year, I was in the Ouachita Life booth telling stories every hour on the hour. Hubby had to find a way to stay busy, so he entered contests. One, in particular didn’t seem to be getting a lot of entries. So, he bought 5 or 10 chances, and guaranteed that we would win. As everyone was cleaning up at the end of the day, we were among a very small crowd listening for the winner to be drawn. He proudly stepped forward before his name was completely out of the announcer’s mouth, and we took home a brand new television! That is probably my very favorite “I told you so.”
        Fundraisers: Because of the usually beautiful weather, many groups schedule events to attract attention to their causes, and raise some necessary operating capital in the bargain. A crisp fall morning is the perfect time to don a long-sleeved t-shirt and sturdy running shoes and walk through the streets of our favorite nearby big city. Though officially a race, there are very few if any who have winning on their mind. It’s the camaraderie, the shared concern for others that keeps us tromping across the bridges and past the tall buildings. Of course, dancing fire-fighters are a big plus as well. The thought just occurred to me- I wonder what will happen if the Broadway bridge is out of commission for this year’s Komen Race for the Cure? Hmmm. Recalculating.
        Football: Of course! We are fans on every level. Oldest son was in a pee-wee league, and we have great memories of learning the rules and taking some hard knocks, with little siblings playing and cheering on the sidelines. High school games are still the thing to do on Friday nights in our neck of the woods, whether witnessing them in person, or listening to our preacher/play by play man on the radio. Of course, there are the Razorbacks on Saturday. Even our front door is in the spirit this year.
The weekend is always built around what time the Hogs play. And hubby and I are planning a trip to a professional game in November! Don’t forget about the cheerleaders, pep-steppers and bands. One of my favorite memories ever involves looking up into the bleachers to see our percussion section performing their own version of “Devil went down to Georgia” with drumsticks converted to fiddles. Uncommon, for sure. Also, if you have never seen the Bryant Legacy perform what they call Trombone Suicide, you are in for a treat. Go for it kids, one day your energy level will drop drastically!
        Family:  The common thread here? Besides the frequently found fantastic first letters?  Autumn brings back so many good memories. The crispness of the air, the beauty of God’s creation as it winds down and prepares for a rest. The promise of sunshine and cool breezes, and campfires: Oh My. I could go on all day. But, you have places to go, people to see. Turn to the middle of this magazine and find something fun to do with your own family and friends. I firmly believe God sent October to renew our faith and lift our spirits. Enjoy!!!


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Disney Vacation Hot Wash

One of my favorite bosses directed us in an activity called a "hot wash" after each major project reached completion. This military term refers to cleaning a weapon and preparing it for the next mission. With the recent 100 plus heat index days, this is the perfect way to look back on our "Grancation" with our grandkids at Disney. Not a deep analysis, just a quick look at what worked well, and what could have been better. Hopefully, it will help someone who is thinking of doing something similar.

A bit of setup info: This trip involved five grandchildren from the age of 16 months to 14 years,who live in three different states,  a set of grandparents in their late fifties, and the parents of the youngest child. A huge advantage, those parents live in Orlando, and they are expert Disney guides. Your results may differ. @MomExploresORL

What worked:
  • Planning ahead, and using the My Disney Experience website and app.We used it before, during and after the trip to keep everything running smoothly. Also used their Customer Service help desk and had magical results every time.
  • Staying at a Disney resort, and using their transportation, instead of renting a car.
  • Magic Bands. Used as identification and access for transportation, fast passes on rides, etc. We really didn't want to take them off when the week was over.
  • Fast Passes. Studying up on these and becoming proficient at scheduling rides was an amazing way to enjoy rides, meet and greets and shows without the long waits. Also a great exercise in humility as we tried not to gloat while passing those other poor souls who were waiting in the queues.
  • The cabins at Fort Wilderness. Ours held two adults and four kids comfortably. The kids didn't have to be extra quiet, since we weren't sharing walls with neighbors, and we were able to cook in the handy little kitchen instead of buying every meal.
  • Photo pass and Memory Maker. The professionals handled the pictures so we could concentrate on enjoying the experience, and each other. 
  • Disney gift cards for each kid's souvenir money. We loaded them up with an equal amount of money, wrote their name on back, and used them at the shops when they found the perfect toy, hat or special treat. The clerk circled the remaining balance on the receipt so we knew how much remained. It all had to be spent at Disney, but that included the gift shop at the resort, Disney Springs, and the Disney shop at the airport. No problem zeroing out before we came home!
  • Wearing matching shirts at the parks. Sounds simple, but this was invaluable in keeping everyone within sight.
  • Managing the heat. We made sure to have a bottle of water to share, hats for everyone, and SPF 50 sunscreen. No sunburn or heat stress illness for this crew!
  • The ratio of adults to kids. Ours was 4 to 5. This allowed for separating for different activities, or staying behind when one of the kids (or adults) needed a rest. Super easy.
What could have been better: (These are by no means complaints. Just observations.)
  • Coordination between the Disney Magical Express and the resort staff. We discovered that the Magical Express folks are contractors, and they are independent of the resort. This almost caused an issue with our luggage when we were leaving. (Traveling mercies saved us). Trust the letter that comes from the Magical Express people for the information about the trip to and from the airport, instead of the front desk. 
  • Swimming. This was just a logistics problem. Since we were in cabins,instead of a hotel, getting to the pool involved a bus ride. When we came home for our mid-day nap, we actually turned off the TV,  closed the curtains and Slept! So, there was not enough time to change into suits. gather towels, etc. and still make it back to the park for the evening events.
  • Take heed of the warnings and cautions at the beginning of the ride. Day one, first park, first day. Youngest child, who has a history of motion sickness ate very little except a glass of milk before boarding the first ride. It had a height requirement that he barely met (first red flag.) It was a simulator type ride with lots of bumps, loud noises, etc. By the end of the ride, there was puke. Yep, not animated or simulated, but real puke. What a great way to start. Of course, we had convinced him that it would be fine."Come on, it will be fun." It wasn't. That created trust issues on other rides. Oh well, lesson learned. The rest of the day and the next two days were a whole lot better. 
Summary of the Hot Wash: The Carlisle Grancation 2016 will be the stuff of legends for years to come!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Summertime Storytime

          A hot day in Arkansas. What is our favorite activity? Finding shade. And something cool to drink. And what tops off a hot day better than a great story?
          Recently, I held seven or eight upturned faces in the palm of my hand as I stood in a shady spot and told stories. It was an awesome feeling of power. As their little bodies cooled off, and they eagerly listened, they were almost literally hanging on every word. I reviewed the stories I had planned to tell, and chose each word carefully. First goal, keep them listening. More than just talking, I needed to be animated, interesting, intriguing. Then, make sure that the thoughts they took away when they went back out in the heat were worthwhile. A weighty task for a fifteen minute job.
          After being serious for a little bit, and talking about the difference between truth and fiction, I related a funny story from my childhood and a completely outlandish tall tale. Then, I turned the tables, and asked them to come up with their own story. It was much too hot to write War and Peace on the courthouse lawn that day. What they came up with was a short story, with a great mix of popular culture and imagination. Here you go: the first creation by the Stories on the Square gang:
          “We were having lots of fun at Saturday on the Square, but no-one expected to see a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple eater. He ate ten people.”
          Nothing could have been more satisfying for this old story-teller.
          Of course, there are times when you don’t want to listen, you’d much rather hold your story in your hand and read it for yourself. This works under a shade tree, or a beach umbrella, or inside in your favorite lounge chair with the A/C blaring.
          Here are some ideas from my bookshelf to get you started:
          “As Waters Gone By” by Cynthia Ruchti. Set on the cooler Northeast coast, this one is a contemporary tale of a woman who is starting over. Her husband is paying for some mistakes he made by serving his court ordered sentence. Instead of enduring the constant questions and scrutiny of well- meaning friends and family, she gathers up her own emotional and financial mess and moves into the bare bones fishing cabin that he has used, but she has rarely visited. Her journey will have you laughing and crying, and relishing the characters she meets along the way, including her new mentor with the unlikely name of Boozie Unfortunate. No, Really.  Extremely unusual, nominated for awards, what could be better? Find it in your bookstore or on your electronic reading device.
          “Robin”, the first book in a historical series called Brides of a Feather, is the first published work of my new friend Julane Hiebert of Southwest Missouri. Set on the Kansas prairies in the latter nineteenth century, it introduces us to a young lady who is determined to make a contribution to her family and her community, despite her own physical difficulties. Her bachelor uncle is not quite sure how to react when she comes to help him on the ranch. And then, of course, like any good romance, there is a bachelor nearer to her age who is having trouble deciding exactly what he is looking for in a wife. Also, just for an element of surprise and lots of action, there is a charming orphan who has a way of saying exactly the right thing at the right time. Delightful.
          “Chapel Springs Survival” is the second in a contemporary series set in a southern tourist town. The lead characters are moms and grandmas who love to spend time together, and love to share their ideas for improving the lives of everyone around them. Think Lucy and Ethel in modern-day Georgia. Their adventures keep us laughing, and we identify with their efforts to keep everyone happy. Ane Mulligan may not be a household name yet, but that will soon change.
          “The Christmas Star” by Arkadelphia favorite son Ace Collins.  I love reading Christmas books in the hot summertime, and this one looks wonderful. It describes a family that is dealing with the legacy of a soldier who gave his life during World War II. This one will be moving to the top of my To Be Read pile.
          “Where There’s Smoke” by Susan May Warren introduces a new series by one of my favorite authors. Stories of firefighters are guaranteed to spark my interest (I have a million more of those references if you are interested.) Hot weather, smoldering romance, perfect in my book.

          Enjoy your summer. Anytime is a good time for a good story. Stay cool! 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Forty Years, Gone in a Flash

So, I am sure you have heard that the time machine DiLorean from the Back to the Future movies has arrived in our current time, which is, as far as I can tell, it’s final destination. So, if no one has a need for it today, do you think I could borrow it?
Our first stop, an autumn day in 1975. While James Carlisle is working at Congo Mercantile, we swiftly remove the time machine mechanism from the car that Michael J. Fox made famous, and install it in James’ 1971 Dodge Challenger. (You ask how we do that? Don’t bother me with details.) Okay. Now, we make our one and only change to history during this adventure. James takes a different route to pick me up for our date that night, thereby avoiding the awful crash that ended the Challenger’s useful life. (James thankfully emerged relatively unscathed, by the way.)
So, now with the correct car in the picture, our journey continues. Next stop, May 31, 1976. Faith Lutheran Church, Little Rock, Arkansas, where a wedding is taking place. Looking around, we see lots of happy folks, dressed in their Sunday best, even though it is actually Monday (Memorial Day) evening. The young ladies seem to be sporting the same hairstyle, long, straight and shiny, with the young men almost the same, except maybe just a little shorter. The bridesmaids are wearing a light blue calico print dress that will hang in the closet from this day forward. Each is also sporting a wide picture hat. The boys (sorry, men) including the groom, are wearing identical light blue polyester tuxedos with white shirts and light blue bow ties. Jenny’s dress, made from the same pattern as the bridesmaids, is a simply beautiful concoction of white satin and lace, with no train, and a simple veil, in the “end of the hippy era” peasant style.
Happy smiles are the order of the day, and history is made as both of Jenny’s grandmothers spend time in the same room while remaining civil to each other. Also, the groom is meeting the bride’s father for the very first time, and his tough State policeman demeanor does not scare her intended away.
We leave this happy group and speed quickly to another location in Little Rock, the tuxedo shop in downtown Little Rock where our 1976 group was outfitted. The year on the calendar behind the counter displays 2002. Today, James and Jenny are arranging to order a tuxedo for another groom, their oldest son Chris. They will also order the outfit of the day for Chris’ younger brother, Jon, who along with James will be one of the groomsmen. They ask for suggestions on a suit for Chris and Jon’s young nephew, Jordan, who at 2 months will be too small for the clothing they have on display. It is decided that the baby’s mother, Chris and Jon’s younger sister Carrie, who is also in the wedding party, will have to shop elsewhere for the appropriate suit and tie.
Jenny happens to mention the old pale blue masterpieces from years ago, and the clerk says. “Oh yes, we still have those in the attic.”
 A mischievous gleam enters James’ eye as he asks, “I don’t suppose you would let me borrow one of those jackets for the wedding rehearsal?” In view of the amount of the check we were writing that day, this request is quickly accommodated. Chris’ sweet bride Katherine was about to learn just what she was getting into by joining this family.
More happy smiles, one more bouquet tossed at a Little Rock church. This time, the guests blow bubbles instead of throwing rice. The bride and groom head off to their honeymoon in Las Vegas, and son Jon and daughter Carrie lament items lost when Jon’s car was burglarized on the church parking lot during the rehearsal dinner.
Back in the time machine Challenger, James and I speed past through the next 14 years, arriving at North-side Church of Christ in Benton, just in time for a Sunday afternoon 40th. Anniversary reception.
This time, friends and family gather at a party coordinated by the three kids and their spouses. Not an easy task, as they live in Arkansas, Florida and Texas. All five grand-children will be in attendance. As is usually the case, the chatter of the cousins will be dominated by plans for Granny Camp, when all of them spend time with their grandparents. Spoiler alert- this year’s event has been renamed to Grand-cation, and it promises to be a once in a lifetime trip for all involved.
After an appropriate amount of cake and punch is consumed, and happy memories are shared, we leave in the time machine Challenger again. This will be the most difficult part of the plan to pull off.  I take the wheel and drive to the nearby car lot that now sells vehicles that look much like this seventies classic. We park it among its shinier counterparts, and try to imagine the look on the salesman’s face when he discovers it. The time machine can be utilized as needed by the lucky new owners. I take James hand as we walk off into the I-30 sunset together. Because, truth be told, there is no need to change a minute of our past. And the future is bright ahead.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Important Work for the New Year- Preserving the Past

  Social Media is the curse and the blessing of our modern day lives. These days, a casual conversation can explode into action in a matter of minutes. Sometimes the flames that result can be fanned into anger and resentment, but almost as often, it seems, amazing things happen when good ideas go viral.
        A very popular group on Facebook is called “Saline County Happenings and Memories.” Its 5800 members share old photos, recall their childhood, and even keep in touch on current events. Frequent topics range from what “used to be” in a certain location to “what they’re building” on a particular spot. It is a healthy group, well moderated so that the discussions don’t stray to unpleasant or off topic subjects.
        What is really fun is that when the right people see the posts, old photos get identified, lost and found items are returned to rightful owners. A good time is had by all.
        Recently, a seemingly innocent question sparked a plethora of posts with old pictures, ideas for preservation, and even a new Facebook group called “Save the Rowland/Nelson/Smith/Lenz House”. The spark plug of this page is Anthony Rushing, a military veteran, history teacher, and Historic Preservationist.  As a 6th generation Saline Countian, he has a personal interest in this property, since his own ancestors are buried in the nearby Nelson cemetery. In Anthony’s words: “I vision it as a structure to promote antebellum yeoman life as well as late 1800’s immigrant life. I think it could be used as a meeting place for anyone as a historical connection to our past.”
What might have been an idle discussion has blossomed into renewed efforts to restore and preserve a treasure that thousands have admired and wondered about on their daily journeys in Saline County.
        The house itself began as a log cabin that was built in the 1830’s, just after Arkansas became a state.  It was continuously inhabited, remodeled to suit each owner, and has watched history passing by its front porch for many generations. It acquired its most recent fa├žade just before the turn of the 20th century, and has remained much the same on the outside for more than 100 years. The last inhabitants lived here in 1992, and with the help of “Coach” Rushing’s students, it was restored during that decade, but is now badly in need of another rescue.
        So, what is in store for this monument to our pioneer spirit? The home is already on the National Historic Register, but as the friends of the Palace Theater in Benton learned, that doesn’t always count for much. Rushing has been in contact with folks that know what to do. He has already talked to Arkansas Historic Preservation, and even some experts on log buildings, who have their own television show called “Barnwood Builders.” Funds will be needed, a lot of sweat equity will be expended, and there are legal ownership matters to be dealt with.
        The fledgling group is planning a face to face gathering, and then I am sure things will start happening quickly. The recent success of the group who is developing the old Wagon Bridge across the Saline River has inspired this new effort. If you are interested in becoming actively involved in preserving our area’s heritage, watch for future announcements about ways that you can help. Since this column only appears monthly, a better way to keep up with the developments will be to watch the Facebook groups mentioned above. If you are not a social media aficionado, send me snail mail in care of Ouachita Life, or email me at
        An old TV show had a popular quote that said “I love it when a plan comes together.” When this discussion first started, someone posted a negative comment that said the reason the old house was not being kept up was “No-one around here cares.” That, my friends, is not true. The gauntlet has been thrown. We do care. Now, it is time to put action with our words. The future in the Ouachita region is growing brighter all the time.