"Snippet" -- a small piece or brief extract
My family loves the outdoors. I could probably write a whole book for this section. Mama grew up on a farm and enjoys gardening and flowers and lots of outdoor activities. She tried to pass this along as well -- and has -- though probably more selectively than she would have liked.
I’ll start with the most enjoyable -- to me, at least. One of the greatest rewards (and most frequent) as we were growing up was to get to go fishing. It was sometimes bribe, sometimes reward, sometimes stress relief, sometimes recreation that we could afford.
I remember when we lived in the old white house there was a pond across the road. I was young and the memories aren’t very specific, but I do remember fishing across the road and conversations about a Grandaddy catfish.
During the years at New Hope, living at Cousin O’Dell’s house, I don’t have very many memories of fishing, but the times at Pleasant Hill are replete with fishing memories. Sometimes we would traipse through the small section of woods that led to the creek and fish there. Often, we would fish from the roadside as the creek fed into Hilton Cox’s pond. Hilton gave us permission to fish at the pond, too, so those are my very favorite fishing memories!
At the end of a day, when work was done, we would go digging for worms. Sometimes Daddy was home, too. Sometimes, Grandmama came over. (As I remember it, she was often the impetus for our fishing trips. . .) We would find rich soil -- oftentimes areas that Mama or Daddy had created for the purpose of drawing/breeding earthworms for fishing. Digging worms was often part of the adventure itself, although we often got whiny if they weren’t abundant and easy. Sometimes it took several tries to find the right spot for lots of worms.
Once the worms were collected into a can or a bucket and all the fishing gear was gathered, we would walk down to the creek, roadside, or pond and settle in. We knew we needed to be quiet or the fish wouldn’t bite -- or at least that’s what the adults told us. In retrospect, perhaps just for a little peace and quiet. It was probably a moot point anyway, but we did try. Quiet moments by the pond are some of my favorite childhood memories -- catching fish, turtles, and even eels. Oftentimes, just drowning worms, but we were doing it together.
Somewhere along the way, someone has gotten the idea that I don’t enjoy fishing anymore. That is absolutely not true. While it is difficult for me to carve out time from my other responsibilities at a time that is appropriate for fishing, and I don’t enjoy the heat of the summer always, and I really, really hate mosquitoes and gnats that sometimes come with fishing, I LOVE fishing! I love the peace of it, the quiet anticipation, the shared experience, the sometimes-excitement of the catch. It’s a legacy that lives on . . .
I had a love-hate relationship with the clothesline. Mama taught me to hang clothes out from the time I could reach. Even before that, I would hand her clothespins or hang out while she was hanging out the clothes. I loved the smell of sheets after they had dried in the sun. I’ve never smelled sheets that smelled like Mama’s sheets off the line. It’s a beautiful sensory memory from the New Hope days that I treasure -- so soft -- and THAT smell.
Some days I didn’t mind hanging out clothes -- or taking them in. There’s a comfort to it. I love the smell and the stiff-yet-soft feel as you’re gathering them up. The orderliness of shaking them out before hanging them up. The cool dampness of the fresh-from-the-washer clothes on a hot summer day. Even sometimes, the quick adrenaline rush of a quick unexpected shower and the mad dash to get the dry clothes in before they get wet again.
Some days, not so much . . .I don’t know why. I don’t know if there was a reason beyond my fickle childhood moods. Often it was my job. Sometimes I despised it, sometimes I tolerated it out of obligation, but sometimes I relished it and reveled in it.
As an adult, I’ve had times where I’ve hung out clothes, and where I’ve strictly used the dryer. Both have their positives and negatives. Sometimes I long for the feel and smell of air-dryed laundry. Sometimes I beg Shane to put up another clothesline. Then he reminds me that I work full-time and we are rarely here in the daylight and it would be a moot point. He’s right, but the memory is strong, and sometimes I sure do miss it.
I remember at times having probably 30 or more African violets in our house. Mama loves plants and she has always been great at nurturing them and nursing them back to health even from “almost-death”. She would grab an African violet for 25 cents that looked like death and pretty soon it would be vibrant and thriving again.
For a while, Mama really got into Gloxinias and we had them everywhere. They had beautiful showy trumpet-shaped flowers, and we enjoyed them for quite some time.
She loves anything green, and especially anything that flowers, but outside ones are her favorites. She loves planting them and watching them grow and bloom.
Mama always prefers living flowers over cut ones and often Daddy would get her a new rosebush for birthday or Mother’s Day or some celebration. She had quite a collection of Roses at Pleasant Hill -- Mr. Lincoln and Peace were the two I remember most vividly. Mr. Lincoln with its deep dark scarlet hues and Peace, looking like a swirl of orange sherbet, vanilla, and lemon sorbet, with pink lemonade accents. I loved the variety of Peace’s blossoms.
Long after I married, and once Mama and Daddy tried to get the nursery business established, they really got into Daylilies and we would take family trips to the daylily farm to peruse all the newest, showiest varieties and add a few new ones to their collection.
I remember once at Pleasant Hill, I wanted to establish a little bed of the tiny little wild violas. I loved them! Mama helped me carve out a spot in the yard and plant a few to try to get them established. I have no idea how well they did, but I always appreciated her taking the time to help me with something I enjoyed.
Our tastes in flowers tends to be very different, along with a lot of other things in life, but just like everywhere, variety keeps things interesting and makes life better!
We’ve had a garden as long as I can remember, and growing up, it was definitely a family affair.
Even though I’m probably the least farm-oriented member of the family, I still enjoy the feel and the smell of fresh-turned dirt, watching things grow, and eating things fresh from the garden. That appreciation comes from Mama and Daddy both.
Growing up in a gardening family was such a blessing, and it has spoiled me in many ways. There is NOTHING like a big slice of fresh garden tomato whether you’re eating them with pork chops or on a sandwich (with Miracle Whip of course). Grocery store tomatoes do NOT compare!
It was Mama who taught me to pick the worms off cabbages, how to pick butterbeans and string beans. She showed me when cucumbers and squash are ready and when you need to toss them, save them for seed or feed them to “the animals” (depending on which ones they had at the time) Because it’s always been something we do together, in this area, it’s hard to tell where Mama ends and Daddy starts and vice versa. Together, they taught me a lot about gardening. We’ve spent more hours than I can count shelling beans, snapping beans, shelling peas, “looking” collards, picking cucumbers and squash, shucking corn, silking corn, “squishing” strawberries, and lots more.
One area where I know it was Mama is the cooking of garden-fresh fruits and veggies -- prepping and cooking, freezing, canning were always Mama’s domain. Because of her, I know how to easily peel a bunch of tomatoes or peaches using boiling water. I know how to make strawberry punch bowl cake (a family favorite during the strawberry-growing years). I know how to blanch vegetables to put them in the freezer. I can peel potatoes using a knife (even though she still would complain that I leave too much potato on the peelings. . .) . I can peel and slice cucumbers and tomatoes, though never as evenly as she can. I can cook new potatoes and green beans. I can boil peanuts.
Because of her teaching, I don’t throw out a whole fruit or veggie just because it has a “bad place”. I know how to work around that, saving the good.
Because of her encouragement, I am willing to try lots of different foods, and I will eat almost anything, although turnips are at the BOTTOM of that list!!!!!!!!
Even though I’ve chosen a professional life and my continued “extracurricular” activities don’t allow much time for gardening, I so appreciate all the lessons that came from the time spent in the garden, and using things from the garden, and I appreciate all the effort that went into helping us eat well and eat healthy from the garden that continues even now! What a blessing!
Mama often accuses me of having more food memories than anything else. She’s not altogether wrong perhaps. There are lots of reasons for that:
1. I LOVE food, especially good food. :-D
2. Mama was an EXCELLENT cook!
3. We gardened.
4. Daddy was a meatcutter.
5. Mama couponed.
All of that together = lots of amazing food memories.
I talked about her chicken and pastry in the birthday tribute, but no one can do chicken and pastry like Mama, and while my husband has mastered the art of creating gluten-free pastry now, nothing holds a candle to Mama's. . . .
Stew beef. Yes, I know maybe you call it beef stew, but at our house it was stew beef. Oh, my! So good. . . Tender beef chunks, onions and potatoes. . . . all in a beefy, oniony broth, served over fluffy white rice, usually with green beans (often from our garden . . .). I've tried and tried, but I've never made stew beef that tasted as good as Mama's.
Potato salad! This one I've mastered, and it is still a family staple. With ham at Easter, with fried chicken , with pork chops, . . .or just by itself . . .every potluck dinner ("dinner on the grounds") growing up. Warm or cold, didn't matter. Often I would eat a bowl of potato salad for breakfast straight out of the fridge.
OK, so a little note about breakfast in our house: while Mama was an excellent cook, she didn't like to get up early, so breakfast was cereal, or Pop-Tarts, or whatever was in the fridge (Keeping in mind that I grew up pre-microwave days . . .which meant if it came out the fridge, you ate it cold.) Spaghetti sauce on bread? check Cold meatloaf sandwich? Yep. Cold vegetable beef soup? One of my faves. . . Mama cooked great breakfasts -- but we rarely ate them for breakfast ;-)
So many other foods that Mama cooked or created or put together were special. To this day, one of my very favorite meals is a pork chop (Mama's were always fried; we usually choose to grill or bake ours now.) Rice with speckled butter beans on top, and a fresh garden-ripened tomato sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper. . .so so good!!!!
I guess a food section wouldn't be complete without talking about fish. We live near the beach, and my family loves fishing. I have cousins who would often go spot-fishing, and bring us a "mess 'o spots". Dredged in cornmeal and fried to perfection, served with fish rice (white rice thrown into the last bit of the "drippins'" from the fried fish), and slaw (finely chopped cabbage, salt/pepper, Miracle Whip [Don't fight me on this. . . ], and a bit of sugar). One of Mama's favorites and her mama's before her. Also, one of my favorites!
I keep thinking of more and more, but I have to talk about carrot cake. This was another recipe handed down from a church lady or a family member. The best carrot cake ever! Cream cheese icing full of pecans. I'm the carrot cake baker usually now (or my hubby). It's a family staple. In fact, I think my nephew is requesting it for his birthday. It has been present at birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, pot lucks . . . .omnipresent. . . well, almost. . . . Mama would always argue a carrot cake and a glass of milk was a complete and balanced meal. (Eggs, nuts, and cream cheese for protein, flour for grains, carrots for veggies, cream cheese for dairy, and oil for fat content (and butter in the frosting). Milk rounded out for some extra dairy. . . . I don't know about balanced, but I do know it is DELICIOUS! I make a gluten free version now -- it's not as good, but still yummy!
Macaroni salad, slaw, deviled eggs, ham-rice, meatloaf, and so much more . . such good food. I could talk about this all day. . . .of course, we also ate our share of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (and I always liked Daddy's better, because he put more jelly ;-), Treet meat, vienna sausages, and Manwich from the can, along with Hamburger Helper. Our spaghetti sauce came from a jar and the only regular spices she used were salt and pepper. Chili con carne was as cultural as we got -- it was Southern, fried, and fresh from the garden -- or from a can. But whatever she fed us tasted amazing (except for Turnips, but that wasn't her fault. I'm still not a fan!)
Here are some of my favorite food memories with Mama:
~~~Pineapple Upside Down Cake~~~
Probably my earliest food memory is when I was three years old, living in Grandmama’s old homeplace. We were between houses. The place we were renting when I and my brother were born was not going to still be available. Money was tight, places were expensive, so, for a season we were in the old homeplace. There was no bathroom -- a chamber pot and an outhouse served the purpose. I don’t remember much else from that time, except the Pineapple upside down cake that we made there. We used a cast iron skillet -- layering slices of pineapple across the bottom, filling in all the holes with cherries, butter, and brown sugar. Then we topped that off with cake batter. After baking it off and turning it out, it was beautiful and delicious! And to this day, it's one of my favorite cakes!
Mama has always been an excellent cook. I remember when we were living in a cousin’s house in New Hope, Mama decided to try her hand at making potato chips. I was excited to help. We sliced the potatoes as thin as possible, fried them up in oil, and set them out to dry. Some of them were green, some of them were limp, but a few were crispy and delicious. Mama decided potato chips were not her forte and I don’t remember ever making them again, but what a fun memory!
These have been part of our family repertoire ALMOST as long as I can remember. The recipe came from one of our church ladies. I think they were called preacher cookies because they were often made for potlucks or when the preacher came calling. Most people I know now call these “No Bake Cookies” and there are tons of different versions of them. Ours used peanut butter, butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, and oatmeal. They were delightful little morsels that we dropped by the spoonful onto aluminum foil to set. Sometimes the weather was not really conducive to candy setting, so they stayed pliable and squishy and we got to eat most of them as they were “not fittin’”. We loved the little dribbles that didn’t make it into the gooey delicious piles because those were little jewels that we got to nibble. And we ALWAYS hoped there were a few left over when we took them to potluck (but often we were disappointed.) They are always a big hit wherever we go, and making them with Mama is one of my favorite childhood memories.
This recipe has been lost through time and it has been YEARS since Mama and I made Divinity together, but it remains one of my favorite food memories. It was a tedious process and one that had to be “just right”. We boiled a mixture of sugar, Karo syrup, and water until it formed a ball in a glass of water. That was one of my jobs -- to watch for the ball to form so we knew it was ready. Mama would beat the egg whites, mix them together with just the right timing and consistency and spoon them out (after adding a touch of vanilla) onto aluminum foil. My other job was to top each confection with a perfect pecan half. We spent many of my early Christmases making divinity for parties and to share with family. One thing is for sure, the candy was divine -- and so is the memory!
Now that I’m grown and supposed to be eating gluten-free, clean and healthy, I rarely get this treat anymore, but it’s one of my all-time favorites. A box of vanilla wafers, a can of sweetened condensed milk join with golden and dark raisins and lots of chopped pecans to form almost-cement perfection after lots and LOTS and LOTS of pressing, pressing, and more pressing. (That, along with shelling the pecans was part of my job. . . ) It was topped with half-cherry flowers and green cherries cut into quarters for leaves. It was then CAREFULLY cut into tiny squares (not an easy task due to its concrete construction . . ) and was the perfect blend of sweet and nutty.
There were also these yummy cookies Mama and I made. I have the recipe for them, but I haven't tried making them. . . .maybe that will be another blog post later.
And, for many years, our house was the house that hosted all the church parties -- baby showers, New Year's Eve parties, and more. Those always brought little finger ham sandwiches, Town House crackers with Cheez Whiz, and amazing pineapple delight -- marshmallows, crushed pineapple and whipped topping -- I always loved parties and the food that came with them.
Mama laughs and jibes me all the time about my food memories, but she is an excellent cook, and some of my favorite times with Mama were the ones we spent in the kitchen -- cooking up excellencies just like these. I hope that some of her cooking excellence has rubbed off through the years.
Author's Note: Not even 3 months since Mama left to be with Jesus. Honestly, it was hard to re-read this with all the "still" references, but I couldn't bear to take them out, even though . . . .
There were so many other ways Mama helped out at home -- to save money, make money, and stretch money. These are just some of the ones that stand out. . . .
Looking back, I don’t think I realized how tough things were financially for my family. Yes, I knew I wore hand-me-down clothing most of the time. I knew most of my clothes were not in fashion, and that became more of an issue in middle school/high school as I became more aware and those things became more important. I’d like to say I was mature enough that none of that mattered, but that would be a lie. The truth is, though, Mama did such a good job compensating in so many ways, that I didn’t grow up feeling “poor”.
I know it was hard raising a family of 4, then 5 on one meatcutter’s salary, but Mama did LOTS of things to help make ends meet.
While Mama and Daddy had decided that she would be a stay-at-home mom, Mama was always finding ways to supplement Daddy’s income. I have no idea about the time frame of these, but I remember these ways that Mama tried to make our lives a little richer….
Stop! A yard sale!
I remember from my youth, shopping yard sales with Mama. She was a bargain hunter in all realms, but this has always been one of her favorites and continues to be! If there’s a yard sale anywhere around, Mama’s probably going to find it -- and probably she’s going to stop and shop. . . whether it is someone’s garage, a flea market or a road-side sale!
Probably my favorite yard sale find ever was at the 701 flea market. It was before 4th grade, although I don’t remember exactly when. I reached down into a box and pulled out a semi-hardcover drab brown book. It was fairly thick, and there was nothing to draw me in, and yet it did. 25 cents, and Mama had purchased for me another item that would shape my life. It was a 1908 poetry textbook -- full of classics in all poetic genres. It helped me immensely with a big poetry project in 4th grade with Ms. Deavers and it is still one of my most prized possessions. It has traveled with me to college -- and to all three states I have lived in. It has sat opened by our bedside to favorite poems Shane and I have shared by candlelight-- with candlewax stains to prove its use. During my first year teaching, I often shared poems from it such that Joey would ask often if he could read my poetry book during free time. That book has enriched my life more than I can say.
Even now, Mama is constantly on the look-out for treasures for her kids. A couple years ago, she added a plethora of pastels to our Fiesta dishware collection, and so much more through the years.
Yard saling allowed Mama to get things for us that she wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford, and she is still might quick to call out on a trip, “Stop! A yard sale!”
Stanley Home Parties
Mama met a lady named Ona Lee who sold Stanley Home Products when I was young. One of Mama’s earliest ways to make extra money was selling Stanley Home Products. Even though I was pretty young at this point, I have LOTS of memories of Stanley Home Products -- visiting Ms. Ona Lee, helping Mama pack for parties, and lots of the products themselves. Mama would go out and have parties in people’s homes and introduce them to the products and they would order products, which she would later deliver to them.
They had everything from dishes and cookware to gadgets to cleaners and probably lots more.
Three of my favorite Stanley pieces were a little adding machine that I used for a very long time. It was a little hand clicker with a button for ones, a button for tens and a button for hundreds/dollars. It was red and I spent lots of time clicking those buttons and “helping” Mama… Another favorite was the bun-warmer. I don’t know if that is what it was called, but it is what we used it for. It was a big yellow pot with a shelf that set inside that was scored with holes. It reminded me of a Chinese checkers board. You would put a little water in the bottom and load that shelf up with hot dog or hamburger buns and they were the best ever! Soft, steamy, and perfect! Although sometimes there were a few that got soggy. They were not my favorites, but there is nothing like those buns! The other product was a set of nesting bowls. There was yellow and turquoise I know -- probably another color or two, but the yellow one is the one that has stood the test of time. In fact, Mama still has the yellow Stanley bowl. It has gone to more potlucks than I can count and has been used to hold all kinds of things. We used it a lot when we were freezing vegetables from the garden. My favorite use for the yellow bowl was popcorn. I don’t remember how often we used it for that, but my favorite memory was when we went to the drive-in movie as a family. We went to see Benji at the drive-in. I loved the movie, I loved being with my family and I loved Mama’s popcorn in the yellow Stanley bowl. In fact, I loved that memory so much that we recreated it years later when Barefoot Church hosted a movie night playing Benji and we all went together as a family with the yellow bowl in tow once again.
Friendly Home Parties
Later, Mama did something similar with Friendly Home Parties. It was the same basic premise -- parties in the home to introduce people to the products. They would order and we would deliver. I was older by the time Mama started with Friendly and I remember going with her and helping out with the parties themselves.
My favorite products from Friendly were a fiber optic lamp that looked like a fountain of rainbow colors or fireworks exploding in the sky! I LOVED that lamp. The other piece that I thought was so cool was a reversible doll. It was Little Red Riding Hood on one end, but when you flipped it over, it was the big bad wolf. As a reader/story-teller, that doll really appealed to me. It was so cool.
I enjoyed the time with Mama spent with parties and packing and wishing, and getting to visit the homes of friends, neighbors and church folk.
I don’t remember the time frame, although it probably would have been middle school or high school that Mama took a tax course so that she could do people’s taxes. She worked part-time during those years during tax season helping people with their taxes and it also helped in another way, because it allowed her to help all the family with their taxes through the years. I think this is something she and Aunt Gwen did together, and they are the family tax gurus even now. If anyone in the family needs help, they are the go-to ladies for all things taxes. . . .
I mention this in the birthday section, but it bears repeating, as it was a way Mama helped out our family, friends, neighbors and earned extra money to help ends meet.
Mama is a jack of all trades naturally. She is good at pretty much anything she sets her mind to, and this was no exception. She was basket-weaving frosting, whipping up royal icing, making roses on nailheads, decorating Mickey Mouse cakes along with the best of them before we knew it.
She made cakes for profit, and cakes for church. She made cakes for family and cakes for friends.
This foray was also during those middle school/high school years. Looking back, times must have been challenging for our family during that time. As Dale and I got older and involved in more things, and then Shanda came along during my 7th grade year, I know it was hard financially as our family of four became a family of five -- and I became a teenager with more school expenses and more extracurricular expenses as well.
While there were lots of ideas and things tried to make extra money, this was probably our favorite for lots of reasons:
1 -- More cake in our life -- you can’t go wrong with that!
2-- It was really cool and interesting to watch -- much more interesting than taxes!
3-- It allowed me, at least, to try my hand at it, which was fun -- and is part of the reason I teach reading, writing, math, and music instead of decorating cakes. Apparently, I did not inherit Mama’s jack-of-all-trades genes. Some things I am truly not good at -- this was one of them!
Mama’s cakes were beautiful and tasty and a testament to her talent and her willingness to work hard in many different ways to support our family.
Couponing and Refunding/Rebating
Another thing Mama got into during this time was couponing and rebating. Memory fades, but it seems she took a couponing class early on, and then began a club that met at our house. It was more fun than taxes, too, for several reasons:
1-- We got to meet interesting people like Augusta Davis and mailman Alan Buffkin and lots more. It was fun having people in our house.
2-- It was fun to help. I got to snip coupons and rebates and UPCs and so much more! Snip, snip, snip. It was my way of contributing.. .
3-- I also got to address envelopes for the rebates. Pretty soon I had learned the zip code for Minneapolis, Minnesota by heart.
4 -- It was fun to work alongside Mama doing something that helped our family -- and sometimes we got special things from rebates for us -- kool-aid cups, Del-Monte Christmas ornaments, etc. Those ornaments still have a place on the tree, and we each claim our own as we’re hanging them each year.
Coupons allowed us to eat foods we wouldn’t normally be able to afford, and double-couponing doubled our savings and we were able to eat like kings on the paychecks of paupers because Mama learned all sorts of tips and tricks and had this network of friends with whom she shared a penchant for saving money. They shared money-saving tips, coupons, rebates, and friendship that enriched our lives in many ways.
Later on, Daddy bought a farm and Mama and Daddy worked together to try lots of entrepreneurial enterprises. Strawberries, daylilies, rabbits, and so much more filled days and nights -- all with an eye toward making life better. Most didn't pan out the way they'd hoped, but Mama nor Daddy was ever afraid of hard work to make a dream come true.
Eventually, Mama got on with the US postal service, and served for about 20 years with them. It was hard for her, but she persevered, and later thrived. She developed amazing relationships with her postmaster, co-workers, and her patrons on her mail route. They left her little treats -- or sometimes full lunches in their mailboxes and Mama loved them. She often came home with so many stories about who she had met or gifts they had shared. She loved her job and the people she worked with and for, and for the first time in her life, she was bringing in the bulk of the money for the household. By then, I was out of the house and living my own adult life, but I was so proud of her for pursuing hard things, persevering, and always finding little and big ways to make all of our lives better.
Wiggling money had to have been hard, but we never went without delicious food, and the clothes may not have always been stylish, but they got the job done, and our lives were all richer for all the ways Mama contributed.
Contests abound in the kidlit community on Twitter. I always enjoy trying my hand at them. They are helpful for a lot of reasons.
#1. They encourage me to write.
#2. They force me out of my comfort zones regarding content, genre, number of words, etc.
#3. They offer amazing prizes if you're good enough to win (goals. . . )
#4. They build community as writers read each others' work, offer comments, retweets, shares, feedback, etc.
#5. They are FUN!
There are probably many more reasons to participate, but these are enough for me.
This contest is called 50 Precious Words. Hosted by Vivian Kirkfield, author (and person) extraordinaire, it is exactly what it says: You have (ONLY!) 50 Precious Words to tell a whole story!!! Characters, arc, etc. . . .Beginning, Middle, End . . .50 words! You can read more about Vivian and her inspiration for the contest as well as guidelines here: www.viviankirkfield.com
I became active in the Twitter kidlit community one year ago and this is my FIRST time entering Vivian's contest, but I had lots of fun brainstorming and writing this one. It's called
Bioluminescent fish line the midway,
At the underwater fair.
Octopus tentacles reach
To hold the mounts,
On the ocean carousel.
Giggle, and beg,
“One more time!”
Poor, dizzy Octopus is
spinning out of control,
Ink clouds the carousel
At the underwater fair.
My 54th birthday is looming large this week, and honestly, I would skip it if I could. . . It seems so wrong to celebrate a day without her that is only possible because of her. My first birthday without her. I didn't expect it to feel this way. I never really thought about how birthdays would feel without her. It is not the first sad birthday I've had, and it won't be the last, I'm sure, unless I die before the next sad one ;-) Amidst the tears of having a birthday without her, I'd love to celebrate this week, all the birthdays I had with her. . .
Mama grew up with an alcoholic father and a mother who had grown up during the Great Depression. Frugality and simplicity were the fabrics of her life growing up. Birthdays in our house were not often full of presents and abundance or frills, but they were always special.
Every birthday we got to choose our favorite meal for dinner. Usually, mine was chicken and pastry. It was a family favorite and another testament to Mama’s excellent cooking. Soft, tender, fall-off-the-bone chicken with a rich flavorful broth and clouds upon clouds of fluffy white pastries (Some call her style dumplin’s, but we always called them pastry.) It was always served alongside mounds of white rice to soak up all the thickened chicken juice. Usually a veggie rounded out the meal -- sweet peas or green beans or something green (often from our garden via the freezer).
And there was always cake. When I was in middle school maybe, Mama took a cake decorating class, so for a few years, we had very fancy cakes! Cakes shaped like Mickey Mouse and decorated to the hilt to make it look just like him -- cakes with beautiful roses, and all kinds of beautiful decorations. Sometimes, it was family favorite cakes -- like carrot cake -- or, for me, pineapple upside down cake. Whatever the flavor, and whatever it looked like, Mama’s cakes always had the most important ingredient -- LOVE!
There were also always cards -- carefully chosen and lovingly signed -- sometimes in Mama’s handwriting; sometimes in Daddy’s, but always a beautiful sweet card full of love.
Sometimes, we had parties. Certainly not every year -- and not the ornate events of today’s kids. Second grade, I think, Mama planned a party for Dale (my younger brother) and me together (both our birthdays are in February-- his the 2nd and mine the 24th) So we had our party right around Valentine’s Day -- we had heart-shaped candies and our friends came over to play and bring presents. (I remember particularly a Play-Doh Fun Factory that year -- it was well-used! :-) It was a rare treat to have a party and took a lot of extra effort and expense on Mama’s part, and looking back I really appreciate those efforts.
Also, in second grade, I remember Mama taking me to birthday parties of friends as well. That was a special treat too! I remember attending Greta’s birthday party in Sunset Terrace where we played croquet and Greer’s birthday downtown where we played musical chairs and I was enthralled because her house had an UPSTAIRS! None of that would have happened without Mama’s willingness to get a little gift and haul me over to a friend's house.
As we got older, we were able to plan our own parties, and Mama tried to help and accommodate us if she could. When I turned 16, I had a big party at our house -- a sleepover for the girls. I still have a picture of about 6 of us piled up in the bed under the covers. I don’t remember all that we did (although I think I remember Kim losing her contact down the sink), but I have very fond memories of the party itself and Mama’s help and willingness to make it happen.
She and Daddy allowed me to plan an 18th birthday party in “the barn” (upstairs play area for Dale and me above Daddy’s workshop downstairs in a log barn Mama and Daddy had built.) I invited all my friends and we celebrated big for my 18th!
As we grew into adulthood, birthday celebrations continued and morphed. At some point, we began having family oyster roasts to celebrate Dale’s and my collective February birthdays. We would buy a bushel of oysters, which required copious rinsing and scrubbing to get the ocean-y grunge off. Mama would scrub and rinse, and then direct our scrubbing and rinsing, until we got enough cleaned that she could begin to cook them. She would fill every big pot and pan full of clunky gray oysters and roast or steam them to salty perfection. Sometimes she would fry some fish or shrimp alongside -- or make hushpuppies. Sometimes it was just oysters and saltines. She was always ready to help us with those stubborn shells that wouldn’t release -- either wielding her knife or throwing it back in the pot to coax it open. Finally, Dale confessed, after years of doing birthday oyster roasts, that he didn’t really care for oysters, so we gave up that tradition, but those are special memories!
Birthdays may not have been elaborate affairs, but they always came with love and effort on her part to make it a special day in some way or other.
One thing is for sure, birthdays will never be the same again.
This was not part of the book I created for Mama, but as I was reflecting this week on some blessings, and thinking about LOVE, I wanted to offer these reflections:
Mama’s love was a tough love. She had high expectations, and while, growing up it felt conditional; in retrospect, it was not. But you can bet disappointing her had big consequences -- stern looks, ear thumps, spankings, switchings, lectures, missing out on favorite things, and so much more. At the time, those didn’t feel much like love. Honestly, to a kid’s heart, they seem more like hate. But as a first-time mom, Mama always did the very best she could for me, and she always viewed her job to help make me into the best person I could be. That is love, too.
Mama, though incredibly intelligent and very talented, viewed it as her job to be a stay-at-home mom. Since we were home together all day every day, we had the opportunity/misfortune to see each other’s imperfections up close and personal consistently. I often disappointed her and she often disappointed me. I wish I could say that I was a great daughter and she was a great mom all the time, and we loved well 24-7, but that would be a lie. Here’s what I know after 53 years of walking alongside my mom.
Mama wasn’t the most affectionate mom in the world. (Her mom was not very affectionate with her, either). She didn’t give compliments easily. I’m not sure whether that helped CREATE my need for Words of Affirmation, or if it is simply one of life’s ironies that she wasn’t good at the thing I need most. The letter she wrote us is precious to me because it offers some affirmations that I don’t feel like I got from her as I was growing up. And honestly, looking back, it appears that perhaps her love language was quality time and acts of service -- and I wasn’t particularly adept at offering those, either -- especially in those atrocious teenage years.
The thing is that with (at least some) mothers and daughters, grace and forgiveness is the most amazing currency, regardless of your love language, because we ALL make mistakes. As I met a friend for coffee this week, she asked if Mama and I had a chance to talk about our forgiveness and grace for each other. My answer was Yes, although it was not the tearful outpouring of emotions you might think or expect. Over time, mostly through my writing (go figure!), I shared words of apology, forgiveness, grace . . . and in her matter of fact way, she shrugged off those deep conversations with some of her favorite comments: “Oh well, that’s life.” “Life’s not fair.” etc. Of course, since we are both criers, there were also smatterings of tears and hugs amidst her attempt at a lackadaisical response.
I wrote this poem for her a number of years ago (2009) for Mother’s Day:
On days like today, I think of the gifts I’d like to give,
But, instead of giving, I’d actually take away –
The discomfort of 9 months of waiting,
The long, hard hours of labor,
The 6 weeks of crying, sleepless nights.
I’d take away the sibling squabbles,
The skint-up knees and temper tantrums.
I’d take from you the sass and attitude
I gave back then – wiping out their memory.
I’d remove all the nights of missed curfews,
The lies told, and the worries I brought.
I’d lovingly scrape away all the hard times
Throughout our lives together, leaving only happy memories.
But then, when I came to now,
Our relationship wouldn’t be the same. . .
Those challenges made us the mother and daughter we are.
Yes, I have regrets, and things I’d take away,
But it would change who we are now –
The friendship we have and the love we hold dear.
I hope it’s enough to look back on those days
As building blocks that helped create
The woman I am today, and the relationship we share.
I hope you know
That I appreciate the love that wound itself through
All the memories, good and bad,
And brought us to the place we are today.
While conversations surrounding my writings to her were not gushy and affectionate, they were understood between two hearts that loved well, as best we knew how, and two hearts that learned to give and receive grace and forgiveness for all of our imperfections.
I’m thankful for friends who remind me how blessed I am to have had such a loving Mama for so long, (when she lost her Mom at 14) and that we were so blessed to have had the time, the desire and the fortitude to share our thoughts on love, grace and forgiveness.
And in those moments when death was inevitable, and slowly and painfully stealing her from us, I am so thankful that our last words to each other were, “I love you.”
Books, Books, and More Books (Part 3 of A blog series devoted to the incredible legacy my mother created.)
With humility and immeasurable gratitude, the fact that I was reading the dictionary at 4 and was reading above my level before I ever started school is a testament to Mama’s teaching, guidance, and provision. I am so sad that I don’t have actual memories of her sitting down “teaching me to read” -- or pictures of us reading together, but there were obviously lots of teaching moments. There was also provision of lots of reading material.
The Books of Childhood
The earliest books I remember were Little Golden Books, Rand McNally Books and Little Elf books. We had a plethora of these perfect-for-kids books. Every Christmas and birthday brought more, and sometimes, I even got them "just because". I had fairy tales, poems, Bible stories, animal books, nature books: Trees, Children’s Book of Poems, Prayers, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Night before Christmas, and tons more! I loved those books, and many of the ones that survived now grace my shelves as well. In Mama’s shopping times, she was always on the look-out for inexpensive books.
In 1969 and 1970, Mattel came out with Upsy Downsy land books and toys. I was in love! I had several of the books and toys, spent hours upon hours reading the story books, and still have several of these on my shelf as well! The bright colors and quirky characters were perfect for me and were either an indication of my uniqueness or an instigator of such :-)
Mama also signed up with Parents Magazine Press to receive books periodically and these became the staple of my childhood. My all-time favorite from this series was “Miss Suzy”. I’m sure Mama read it to me countless times. I have read it to myself, certainly, more times than I can count, later to my brother, then to my sister, later to my students, and most recently to Chandler and Kyrah, my niece and nephew. When I finished reading just the other night as they are 8 and 10, they both said, “I love Miss Suzy.” I said, “Me, too,” and oh, how I do!
There were other really fun books in that series -- Marigold Garden, The Monkey’s Whiskers, Donkey Donkey, and the Ice Cream Cone Coot. I am so thankful for Mama’s insight and how she nurtured early on my ability to read and my love for reading.
Before there was Google
Mama also made sure there were reference books in our home growing up. We always had a dictionary and later we got our set of World Book Encyclopedias. Oftentimes on a Sunday afternoon or at night during dinner, a question would come up that no one immediately knew a sure answer for, so before we could ask “Siri”, we asked World Book. We looked up oceans and sea creatures and biblical history and anatomy and physiology and all kinds of animal questions and plant questions -- and all the questions we go to Google now for we went to the World Book then. We used those encyclopedias for school projects and to answer questions and sometimes, yes, I even read them just because. . . . maybe that made me a little weird, but that's okay with me.
Books and Records
Before there were Books on Tape or Audible books or any of that, there were Peter Pan records and books on record. Mama made sure I had plenty of these as well. The favorite one that I remember was “The Wizard of Oz”. On the flip side, it had “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” songs. I loved reading along with the records, and I have to believe that was part of the learning to read expressively. Mama provided excellent role models for reading beyond herself through the books on record!
A Legacy of Books
Mama was not much of a reader for the last really long time, but back in the day she loved reading and kept a small collection of books. As I got older, she began to allow me to read some of the books she had read and treasured. I have the 2 Victoria Holt books that she had held onto and her copy of Gone with the Wind, among others that she shared with me. Reading and loving books is a legacy and I am so very glad that she built that legacy!--
A couple years ago for Mama's birthday and Mother's Day, I gave her a gift -- a book that I wrote just for her. The thing is, Mama was hard. Anyone who knew her will tell you she was tough as nails. When she passed last month, and people were sharing memories, they used words like fiery (red hair), formidable, independent, strong. All of those are true. They were kind enough not to use words like harsh, difficult, stubborn -- but those are true, too. None of us are all light -- or all dark. Both live within us. It wasn't always easy being Mama's daughter -- especially not her first-born. Nor was it easy for her to be a first-time mom. I wasn't an especially easy daughter -- particularly when I reached about 12. Mama and I seemed to butt heads 24-7. I didn't learn to fully forgive and appreciate Mama until I was about 30 years old. For the last 23 years, we shared a loving and respectful relationship that I treasure. This gift was meant to let her know that I had such love and respect for her, but also lots of happy memories. She often got shafted because she was challenging, the disciplinarian and somewhat hard-to-please. Daddy was fun, creative, carefree, and much more nurturing, so he got the lion's share of affection while I was growing up, and Mama got pushback and arguments and little affection or respect from me. I wanted her to know that I did appreciate her and knew the contributions and the sacrifices she had made for me --and for our family.
When I wrote this I had no idea that she had written a letter to us -- her kids (and spouses) about 10--12 years ago (It's not dated, but we think it was written before she went in for major surgery around that time, as she was contemplating the reality of what she was dealing with and that she might not survive it.) We found the letter after her passing last month. Here are some excerpts: "I love you all more than my words could ever say. . .I'm not good at expressing my words. . . .I hope in your heart of hearts that you all know just how much I care for each one of you.. . . I am so very proud of each of you for your own accomplishments!. . . I now need to apologize for any hurt I ever caused you and any inadequacy I may have caused you to feel. I never meant it to be that. I am truly sorry. I have always wanted only what was best . . .please forgive me for all my wrong words, actions or deeds. . . .I am so very blessed . . .whatever you endeavor to do in the future, go for the mountain tops, stars, space, etc. and I'll be there in spirit supporting you every step of the way. . . ."
Whew! Even as I type those words, tears are streaming all over again. What a beautiful gift that letter is! And interesting the correlation to my introduction to this book for Mama:
"Mothers and daughters have a special -- and challenging -- bond. I can’t speak of it from a mother’s heart as I’ve never been blessed with children, but in this volume I want to share some of my favorite memories with my mama. Our relationship was hard-won -- I gave her fits as a baby -- she says I was colicky for the first 6 mos of my life; I was her wild child (which she didn’t share until I was 52?!?!?). I never stopped talking; I was precocious and smart and boy-crazy from an early age and all around difficult. By the time I was 12, hormones hit, and the relationship hit rock bottom -- and honestly -- it stayed there for a really long time. She made mistakes, and I made mistakes -- and we did a lot of things poorly during that time frame. There are lots of things I would take back if I could -- and she probably feels the same. I don’t want to belabor all of that in this book. I want to use my gift of words to let her know how much I appreciate all the gifts she gave -- even the difficult ones. I want her to know that all my memories are not of food, and that I have just as many special memories of her as I do Daddy and Grandmama. Most of all I want her to know I love her and treasure her. I want her to know I forgive her for all of the inadequacy (and I’m praying she forgives all of mine. . .)"
I hope you'll continue to read along over the next few weeks as I share the beautiful memories and the ways she blessed me and my family through the years with all of her gifts, talents, and heart -- and in spite of any inadequacies and difficulties. She wasn't easy, but she was amazing, fiery, formidable and strong, and I hope in all those ways, I am just like her. . . .
Four weeks on this side of forever with Mama on the other side. It seems surreal. At least once a day, I've thought of calling her or stopping by to fill her in on something, only to realize that's a luxury I don't have anymore. Almost a month of wading through the waves and eddies of the grief cycle -- being dragged under, rising to the surface, treading water, swirling in a maddening whirlpool of emotion. Reliving memories, feeling guilty, wondering if we did the right thing at so many places along the journey, wondering how life would be different if we had made different decisions. Putting one foot in front of the other, crying and trying not to cry. A time of condolences and kind gestures, and of people who should care but don't seem to. It's been an interesting time, a mixed bag of emotions as grief always is. I've grieved enough to know. Yet, every grief is different and takes on a life of its own. I forget (and how blessed I am that I CAN) from one grief to the next the blinding fatigue -- getting up in the morning knowing you've slept but feeling more tired than when you went to bed. I forget how the memories creep in every crevice of your mind if you don't keep it busy with something else. I forget the heart-wrenching guilt of what-ifs and whys. I forget the utter emptiness that is grief.
Losing Mama added watching my daddy grieve as I've never seen him grieve before. I traded watching her suffer for watching him suffer. It's the worst part. As their daughter I know deeply the affection they shared. As a wife, I can imagine the empty bed, the empty house, the vast emptiness of a missing half, and feeling you'll never be whole again. Tears stream as I write how it must feel -- to be without your other half after 56 years of being together.
And, because of COVID -- and just life, there have been SOOOO many other deaths in this 4 weeks -- people I know, people who had spouses and children. It's incredibly overwhelming and at times, it has paralyzed me. My creativity has been at an all-time low -- requiring energy I do not have. Notwithstanding the state of the world or the affairs of this country I love. Trying to teach in a Pandemic with all the trappings. It has been a dark 4 weeks. Ironic at a time that is supposed to be full of light. Three major holidays of this season focus on light -- Hannukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa. And yet, this has been such a dark season for me. It is not devoid of light, however, even though it's dark.
Hope shines. In the midst of darkness, hope shines. It is a beacon. I choose to place my hope in a kingdom not of this world -- God's eternal kingdom. I have a strong faith. My parents instilled it early on. As I grew older, I made it my own. It's been tested and purified. It's waxed and waned at times, but because my faith is strong, Hope's beacon shines.
A friend who shares my faith and hope was lamenting on her own grief recently, saying she knew she shouldn't be sad, but she was. But NO! Faith and hope don't take away the sadness. The grief is the love we felt and the hole that is left. We weep and grieve, but not without HOPE. Hope is what guides us THROUGH the grief. Hope is what we have to look forward to on the other side of the grief.
The scriptures say it this way:
It has been the season of contests on Twitter! Giveaways, writing contests, and more! I'm thrilled to share this story which is an on-going story of The Woodsy Woodwinds. These little characters are really capturing my heart and I'm enjoying their stories. I hope you do too! The word limit for this contest was 250 and mine checks in at EXACTLY 250! Everyone who knows me will NOT be surprised by that fact ;-). Big thanks to my critique partners Bonnie Kelso and Aundra Tomlins for helping me whip this little story into shape! Here are the deets for the contest if you're interested:
Huge thanks to Susanna for offering these writing microfiction contests! They are great fun and help us kidlit writers hone our "every word matters" skills! I'm excited to read everyone's stories. It's always amazing how differently we respond to pictures and prompts. That's the joy of creativity!
CHRISTMAS COMES TO HALIBROOK WOODS
Rudy Raccoon was excited for his first Christmas with the Woodsy Woodwinds forest band! He chatted with his fairy friend, Twink, “I’ve decorated this tree with everyone’s favorite foods as a surprise, but something is missing!”
He pulled out his list:
Peanut butter pine cones covered with bird seed - check!
Clusters of dried berries - check!
Apples - check!
Dried clover bunches and carrots - check!
Lots of nuts - check!
Strands of popcorn with cranberries - check!
“Is there something for everyone to enjoy when we untrim the tree?” Rudy asked.
Twink nodded and jingled.
Rudy looked up to the top of the tree and saw the stars in the sky!
That’s what is missing!” he said to Twink.
Twink did a sparkly somersault.
Sticks crunched as Rudy walked around, thinking.
He and Twink found the perfect twigs and glued them together with pine sap, tying the corners with pine needles.
“YES!” he shouted, shimmying up the trunk of the tree to the tippy top. He tied it on with a vine and scurried down to take a look.
“It’s not big or bright enough for anyone to see. That will NEVER do.”
Twink said, “I can help!”
There were twitters, giggles, and skitters as Twink flitted to the top and sprinkled sparkly fairy dust on the twiggy star.
As the star lit, music filled the clearing. All the forest friends were thrilled with Rudy’s surprise.
With Twink’s help, the magic (and the music) of Christmas had come to Halibrook Woods.
I've been a teacher of K-3 students for over 20 years; I'm also a writer of poems, short stories, devotionals and picture books. I'm wife to an amazing husband and mom to Sparkles, Mocha, and Rusty -- our feline fur babies . I love reading, writing, singing and listening to music. I enjoy nature, Bible study and spending time with friends and family!