Candy Canes

There were always candy canes in our stockings on Christmas morning. Not only did Santa put gifts under the tree, according to our mom, he also filled our stockings and left the candy cane at the top.

My grandmother had handmade stockings for my sister and me. Each December we pulled them out with the rest of the Christmas decorations and hung them on the mantle above the fireplace. Actually, the fireplace had been bricked up and a gas heater sat in its place, but the mantle remained and was the perfect place to hang our stockings among the other seasonal decorations.

Christmas morning, after opening our gifts, we’d turn our attention to the stockings. First, we’d remove the candy cane at the top. We’d pull back the plastic wrapper and suck on the peppermint-y sweetness as we emptied our stockings to see what else Santa had brought. We’d continue sucking away, the candy cane growing shorter by the minute, as we began playing with our gifts. We’d still be enjoying the last of it while helping pick up discarded wrapping paper and bows with sticky fingers.

We grew older and learned it wasn’t Santa who put gifts under the tree after we went to bed on Christmas Eve. Momma still made sure the candy canes were in our stockings every Christmas morning. When we moved away to college, the candy canes still appeared. When we each married, and later when grandchildren arrived, more stockings were added to the mantle and a candy cane was in each one.

It was a tradition we all loved and expected. One year, my mom couldn’t find the candy canes she was sure she had bought, so my sister and I were dispatched to the store to buy more. We fought a packed parking lot, a crowded store, and a long wait in the check out line to keep the tradition alive another year.

After I divorced and began spending some Christmases alone, I didn’t bother buying candy canes. While I like the flavor of peppermint, I’m not a huge fan of the candy. Besides, I had no place to hang a stocking. So I stopped the tradition. Even now, after meeting my boyfriend, and moving in together, I don’t do candy canes. Like me, he isn’t concerned about decorating for Christmas, and he doesn’t like sweets, so I didn’t have a reason to renew the tradition.

But now he has a grandson, and I’m thinking the time may be right. I’ll make a stocking, find a place to hang it, and put in a candy cane on Christmas morning, telling him that Santa left it just for him.

You can listen to an audio version of this story here.

Morning Fog

We always reserve the same campsite, our home away from home. There is comfort in knowing what to expect, where the fire pit and hook-ups are located, and how we need to back in. It may not be adventurous, but since we only go for two days, the familiarity helps us relax and enjoy the time.

As the seasons change, the campsite also changes. How the sun hits the camper at high noon, which shades need to be closed to keep the sun out, how green the trees and shrubs are to block our view of neighboring campsites. And this morning, there is something new. Stepping out of the camper, I don’t notice it, but turning to walk down the hill to the bathhouse, a light layer of fog is visible, beginning about 15 feet above the ground. It doesn’t block out things out, just gives a misty haze to the trees and the rays of sunlight streaming through. 

It is quiet this morning. The only sounds are cars and trucks on nearby roads, planes flying overhead, and birds chirping up in the trees. The fog adds to the stillness.

It is chilly out, so I sit by the dying campfire. Plenty of heat still radiates off the wood, so my front is warm while my back is cool. I move my chair closer, and lean in, feeling the sting of the intense heat on my face.

A wiff of food cooking reaches my nose, and I realize I am hungry. A man and dog walk by, and I hear camper doors open and close. The sun is rising higher in the sky, burning off the fog as it does. It is time to gather what I need to prepare breakfast. It is time to begin the day.

 

Ruffled Feathers

My great aunt had lived on the family farm her entire life, and each day she followed a regular routine for doing her daily chores. One morning, when I was about six, I followed her to one of the small buildings behind our house to see if I could help. As I watched, she unlatched the door, swung it open, and stepped inside. I paused at the threshold, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darker interior, then followed her in. Turning right, she walked to the wall, put her hand in one of the openings, and quickly withdrew it, holding what she had been after. It seemed easy enough and I wanted to try. Imitating her motions, I tentatively reached out my hand, put it into the next opening, and began feeling for one of my own to grab. But I was slower than my great aunt. Too slow. Ouch! The hen sitting in her nesting box did not want me to reach under her and remove the warm, smooth, freshly-laid egg. Disappointed in myself, I wondered if I would ever attempt gathering eggs again. Why did something that seemed easy have to be hard and painful?

 

Thanksgiving Memories

How I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving has changed through the years. Some years I’ve been with family, some years alone; some years I’ve been filled with gratitude, while other years I’ve had to work hard to truly give thanks. Sometimes I’ve thanked what has come into my life, sometimes what has left my life, and sometimes I realize how thankful I am for what did not happen. I guess that’s life.

Here are some of my memories of celebrating Thanksgiving:

I was 2 months old my first Thanksgiving. My parents took me to northwest Arkansas to show me off to my grandmothers, great aunts, and numerous family friends. I have no memory of this, but there is a photo of me sitting with my grandmothers (whom I was named after).

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When I was two or 3, the table was set with the china, silver, and crystal. The relish tray, with pickles and pimento-stuffed green olives, was also on the table. The story goes that my mom walked into the dining room and saw me sitting at the table. On my plate were four or 5 olives. When asked why I had them there, my reply was I wanted to be sure I got some. It has become a family joke about putting the relish tray next to be so I can get my olives.

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Growing up, Thanksgiving dinner was pretty much the same every year: roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, green beans (later, green bean casserole), mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows, relish tray with pimento-stuffed green olives and sweet gherkins, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, and cranberry sauce from the can. Dessert was pie – usually pumpkin and pecan.

I don’t remember traveling for Thanksgiving. When I was 5, my maternal grandmother moved to my hometown, so we celebrated holidays with her. I remember Thanksgiving being a fairly quiet day. The kitchen was where the hustle and bustle was, the heat from the oven warming the dining room and den, where the TV was on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and then football games. The formal china, silver, and crystal came off the china cabinet shelves to grace our table.

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Thanksgiving my freshman year at college was my first trip back home, and after three months of dorm food, I was looking forward to our usual Thanksgiving dinner. I was not happy to get home and learn that instead of a full turkey, she was cooking some sort of turkey roll formed from turkey meat, and I let my unhappiness be known. It actually tasted fine, and the rest of the meal was what we usually had, but I had made my point. In the years to follow, my mom always let me know if she wanted to do something different (such as cook only a turkey breast, or order an already-cooked turkey from the grocery store deli) and asked if I was OK with that.

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I was a newlywed and we were going to my parents for Thanksgiving. Wanting to show that I was, indeed, grown up, I said I’d bring a pumpkin pie. Using the Betty Crocker cookbook I had “borrowed” from my mom, I bought canned pumpkin, pumpkin pie spices, evaporated milk, and a pre-made pie crust. (I still haven’t mastered making a pie crust). My first effort came out rather well, with my dad taking a bite, smiling, and saying with some surprise, “Gladys, this is good pumpkin pie.” Made my day.

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While in grad school, my (now ex) husband and I were invited to spend Thanksgiving with a friend and his family. Everyone was very kind and gracious, and the food was delicious, but we were outsiders. I felt awkward the entire time and realized that I would rather stay home alone than be with people I don’t know just for the sake of not being alone.

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A couple of years later, we did stay home alone and I cooked my first turkey and all the fixings. I don’t remember why we didn’t visit family that year, but part of the reason probably was I wanted to do it myself to see if I could. I agonized over being sure the turkey was done and neither of us got sick. It all came out fine, except for the rolls. I tried a recipe I saw in the paper; while they tasted great, they didn’t rise, so were very thick and dense.

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Celebrating Thanksgiving while living in England was a different experience. A group of us Yanks who were there for a year got together to mark the occasion. It was strange watching the news that morning and realize that for almost everyone else in the country, it was just another Thursday. There was also the challenge of finding ingredients for traditional dishes: cornmeal to make cornbread for the southern dressing, sweet potatoes (there were yams, but they are not the same), canned cranberry sauce and canned pumpkin. We were able to pull it all together and had a wonderful day.

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After I got divorced, my ex and I alternated Thanksgiving with our child. And I found that the years I was alone, I just wanted to be by myself. I looked forward to eating what, and when, I wanted, watch what I wanted on TV, or read, take a nap, or whatever. Co-workers and friends always felt sorry for me and invited me over, and I always declined. I didn’t feel sorry for myself; I enjoyed the time and space alone.

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One year we were all there – me and my kid, my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews. My mom had premade the dressing and frozen it. In removing it from the freezer to thaw overnight, still in the glass baking dish, it slipped from her hands and crashed to the floor. Glass and cornbread stuffing went everywhere. She was distraught. My sister and I quickly cleaned up the mess, made a quick trip to the grocery store and baked a fresh batch, which we devoured with our turkey.

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My last Thanksgiving with my mom came as she was cleaning out in preparation for a move into assisted living near my sister. My dad had passed away the previous February, so it was very different than previous years. She did bake a pan of dressing but ordered the turkey from the grocery deli. What I most remember about it are watching her try to sort through years of paperwork trying to decide what to keep, what to shred, and what to give away, and of taking her to the ER on Saturday.

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My first Thanksgiving in Florida was 2 months after I moved. Alone again, I had no real plans for the day. After a cold start, the sun came out so about noon I got in my car and drove south through New Smyrna Beach and Titusville. The clouds rolled back in, and then, being late November, the sun was going down, so I headed back home to a dinner of turkey slices from the deli, stuffing made in the pan, and cranberry sauce with the berries. I ate dinner while watching DVDs on my computer and realized it had been a good day I was thankful for. The only thing missing was someone special to share it with.

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That had changed by the next Thanksgiving. I met my boyfriend in early September, and we celebrated our first Thanksgiving together by cooking. We prepared a whole turkey, stuffing ( I had always made dressing before), green bean casserole, dinner rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy… lots of gravy. A couple of friends joined us and we stuffed ourselves.

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This year we are walking down the street to have Thanksgiving with his sister and her boyfriend who moved here earlier this year. Our only responsibility is making mashed potatoes, and to show up with a big appetite. I am looking forward to not having to do much, yet it is different not spending the day cooking with my boyfriend.

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What will Thanksgiving next year be like?

Candy Corn

Candy CornThe lidded candy dish sat on the piano in my grandmother’s living room. It’s dark blue glass took on an iridescent glow when the light hit it just right. It was the treasure inside, however, that I eagerly anticipated.

Grandmunie, my paternal grandmother, lived 300 miles away, so we didn’t visit often. After a long trip in the car, we’d arrive at her house and be greeted with hugs and kisses, then I would pull away to run inside to be sure she had not forgotten. I’d climb up the piano bench, raise the lid of the candy dish and look inside. Then I would smile. It was there, candy corn. I’d put a piece or two in my mouth and savor the rush of sweetness, and the contentment that she had remembered.

I don’t know how the tradition began. Did she put it there because I loved it, or did I stumble across her stash and discover a new favorite candy? I don’t even remember if my younger sister liked it or not. What I do remember is how special I felt because she always had candy corn in the candy dish.

While it isn’t my favorite candy these days, the sight of the orange, yellow and white triangles instantly takes me back to my childhood, and what I like to think was a special connection I had with my grandmother Gladys*.

*I was named after both my grandmothers: my first name Gladys from my paternal grandmother, and my middle name Lou from my maternal grandmother (Myrtle Lou).

You can listen to an audio recording of this story here.

Writing By Hand

I have owned a personal computer since 1985. After typing term papers on a manual typewriter, where edits beyond typos meant retyping an entire page, using a word processor was a huge time saver. Since then I have continued using computers for typing papers, reports, forms, letters and, since the internet became available, emails. So when I began writing my stories, I naturally typed them on my computer. I type faster than I write, so it made sense to get the words out of my head as quickly as possible before I forgot them.

But, it turns out, typing my initial drafts doesn’t work for me. I find the physical act of writing on paper works much better. Seeing the words form from my hand somehow helps my thoughts flow better, and somehow, my handwriting is able to keep up.

Here’s how I currently write, the method that works best. I handwrite my first drafts on legal pads. I like having lines so I can write fast and not slope to the edge of the page. I leave every other line blank to make it easier to read, and to allow room to write edits.

Until this summer, I always wrote with a pen. Because of arthritis in my thumbs, I used rollerballs since the ink flow is smoother. Of course, that ink also easily bleeds through paper and can make a mess if it gets wet. Then I heard Danielle LaPorte say she used a mechanical pencil with a larger size lead to write in her planner.  And the light-bulb went off in my head.

I bought a couple of mechanical pencils and found the 1.3 mm lead worked well for me. It flows across the paper, can be erased if needed, and is easy on my fingers.

After I complete the first draft, I read through it, making notes and edits on the blank lines and the margins. Then I handwrite the 2nd draft, and edit again. By this point I am usually ready to type it on the computing, editing as I go. I double-space the text so I can print a copy to read aloud and edit by hand. Yes, I want a physical copy to edit; that’s what works for me.

An added bonus for me is that the paper-and-pencil method is portable. I can write from anywhere without having to carry a computer, worry about batteries dying or having access to electricity.

The biggest negative for me is the amount of paper that I go through. I hate to waste anything, and all that paper I use seems like a waste. That was part of why I tried drafting on my computer, to save paper. However, it just doesn’t work for me, and I am learning to be OK with it.

I’m not the only one that finds value in writing by hand. Here’s another writer, TE Shepherd, who also drafts by hand, and in this article, he talks about why it is beneficial to do so. Then this article from the Huffington Post delves into how your brain benefits when you write by hand.

Writing by hand may not be the best method for everyone, but I encourage you, whether writing professionally, for fun, or just keeping a journal, to try writing by hand. See the results then decide whether or not to continue. I may even change my system as time goes by. But for now, I’ll always have a supply of legal pads and mechanical pencils close by.

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Moving On

On Saturday, September 7, 2013, I loaded everything I owned into my Honda Accord, and over the next 13 hours drove 800 miles to begin a new life. I had spent several months going through everything I owned, and gave away, donated or sold anything I didn’t believe had a place in my future. I was moving to Florida, so I didn’t need heavy winter clothes. Living alone I only needed basic cooking and eating supplies. I finally realized that it would be cheaper to sell my furniture and buy what I actually needed once I got there, so that went as well. I was ready for a clean start.

The move was 4 ½ years in the making. I had finally admitted that I did not like being cold, that winter did nothing for me other than make me depressed; I needed to be outside more and I needed to be near the ocean. I wanted the freedom to work for myself, to be in charge of my schedule. I made the choice to quit my job and leave behind good friends to make it happen.

My birthday is a time of reflection, of looking back on where I’ve been and where I want to be. It isn’t so much about setting goals and resolutions, but about what I want to focus on, to bring into my life over the next 12 months. So, it is no surprise that my move was a few weeks before my birthday.

And this year, around my birthday, I am reflecting back on that move, on how much my life has changed since then, about how I now live the life I had dreamed of for several years. And I wonder about others who, in times past, made a similar change. Who packed up all they owned, traveled many miles, and began a new life away from friends and family. Who, like me, did it by choice.

Specifically,19th-century settlers who kept moving west across the United States. Maybe it is from watching Westerns with my boyfriend, or maybe it is because that is when my ancestors moved from the Carolinas and Alabama to Arkansas where they stayed. Whatever the reason, I am curious about the people that loaded up wagons and set off into the unknown.

My move took one day, and I was immediately able to get in touch with friends and family during the drive and upon arrival. What was it like to leave behind loved ones and know you would never see them again? Did they pack all they owned, or did they, like me, leave things behind? How did they know what to take, or did they guess and take the wrong things? And my big question, why? What were they looking for, hoping to find? Did they find it? Did they see themselves as brave? Foolish? Determined because they had a feeling they just had to go? How did their families feel, both the ones that went with them and the ones left behind? What about my ancestors? Why did they make the move? Was it by choice? Did they find what they were looking for?

You may see where this is going. I have a lot of questions and I love to research, so I’m taking this on as a project. Right now I’m calling it “Moving On”. I’m not sure what will come out of it. Maybe some articles, maybe a book. I am curious to learn more and see where this takes me. I’ll post updates on the blog; you can find them under the category Moving On.

Join me on this journey!

You can listen to an audio recording of this story here.

Reading Banned and Challenged Books

My senior year in high school, we were assigned to read The Canterbury Tales in English class. Mrs. Hendrix, our teacher, handed out our copies and a list of Tales we could choose to read from. Among these were The Knight’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and The Monk’s Tale; in other words, the tales that were more virtuous, the tales that would teach us values. Then she told us we were absolutely, positively NOT to read those that were not on the list. You know, the vulgar ones like The Miller’s Tale.

It was a brilliant move. Being typical teenagers, we immediately began reading those that were “banned”. We may have thought we were getting away with something; who would know if we read the ones we were not supposed to? As a result, we read at least twice as much as we were assigned. And of course, that was why she so vocally told us not to.

Eighteen years later I am living in England. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is published, followed by the Muslim outrage over its content. It was when the Ayatollah issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie that I really took notice. There were protests outside British bookstores, book burnings were held, and even bombings of bookstores. I wanted to read the book, to see what all the fuss was about for myself. And to be a bit rebellious.

The act of challenging or banning books removes them from access, often before many people become aware of them. This is why shining a light on titles that have been banned or challenged is so important. Get the word out so people are aware of books that are published, but which they don’t have easy access to. Let them know that someone, somewhere thought the books were inappropriate and therefore made sure that NO ONE would be able to read them.

We need to make some noise about the books that are challenged and banned, and not just during one week in September. We need to be more vocal all the time. Remind people that there is still a danger that they cannot read what they want because books continue to be challenged and banned. Remind them of all the books that are on the list of banned books, maybe even ones they thought they’d like to read. Remind them to get a copy and read and decide for themselves what they think of it. Remind them to act like rebellious teenagers.

In that spirit, I am going to do what I did not do in 1988. I am going to finally read The Satanic Verses. I hope you will join me. What banned book have you been meaning to read, but not gotten around to? Why not read it now?

The Night After – Reflections on Hurricane Irma

I lay in bed and relax. The window air conditioner hums away its white noise while a movie plays on the TV. These are the usual before bed sounds, but tonight, they seem very quiet.

The night before, the worst of Hurricane Irma was arriving. I went to bed to try and get some sleep, exhausted after days of preparing and worrying and watching the projected path and waiting. Lying in bed I could hear the howl of the wind above the drone of the air conditioner. The branches of the potted palm secured just outside our east bedroom window scraped and scratched against the air conditioner.

I took a few deep breaths, slowly inhaling and exhaling, to occupy my mind and relax my body. Just as I’d get comfortable, the wind would gust louder than before, and I’m reminded of what is going on outside.

I did sleep, but lightly, waking often. Sometime during the night I noticed a change. The avocado tree outside our south bedroom window was brushing across the bars and boards that protected the old, not hurricane-proof, glass. This meant the wind was shifting from the east to the south-east and the south. Irma was passing, but there were still hours of wind to go. I got up, knowing that I could sleep later.

And now it is the night after. The air conditioner and TV are on, as usual, but tonight the bedroom is calm and quiet. I lay in bed and smile. I am happy. Not the jump-for-joy kind of happy, but the quiet, relieved happy of having come through the storm relatively unscathed. Eveything is good in my world. Tonight I sleep a deep sleep of rest and comfort.

#Eclipse2017

I first heard about this year’s total eclipse from on a TV commercial. “I’ll have to watch that,” I thought. Later, I began to hear where the band of totality was going to be. We weren’t in it, but would be close enough to witness changes. As the day neared, excitement was growing, both in the media coverage and in me. I thought about getting eclipse glasses, but by now supplies were running out. Even with them I still wasn’t sure I’d take a look. After having cataract and LASIK surgery on both eyes last year, I did not want to do anything that might damage my eyes. Maybe I would do what I’d done in grade school during a partial eclipse – put a hole in a piece of paper and let the light shine through that onto the ground.

But I am trying to be more mindful, to live in the present moment, to really take notice of all that happens around me. I decided that instead of looking UP like everyone else, I’d look AROUND and notice how the earth was changing. How different would my yard look? Would the temperature cool noticeably? Would animals behave differently?

View as the elcipse began

As the eclipse began, I went outside and took pictures. I wanted to create a picture story of what I experienced. Coverage on the TV was showing what people in the path of totality were experiencing, and while I knew we would not get that, I was excited and curious to see what we would get. Every 10 minutes or so, I’d go back out to see what was happening. About 90 minutes after the start, we reached the greatest coverage.

 

I was disappointed.

 

There were noticeable changes but they were subtle. There was still plenty of sunlight casting overhead shadows on all objects. The light was different, but my phone’s camera couldn’t capture it. I wanted to describe it as if a cloud was blocking some of the light, but that wasn’t right either. It might have been compared to dusk, when you can

View at greatest coverage. Hard to notice any changes.

still see easily, yet it was coming from overhead and casting very short shadows. Not like the long shadows of evening at all. The temperature only dropped about 3 degrees F. A cooling breeze was noticeable, and this wasn’t the typical sea breeze we get in the afternoon. The birds were no where to be seen, and the lizards that normally run around our garden and patio were still there.

I consciously chose to do things different from most people. I wasn’t traveling to be in totality; I wasn’t going to use eclipse glasses. I was instead going to focus on what went on around me, and record my observations. A different way to experience the eclipse. And it was boring.

I didn’t have this great experience of observing nature. I didn’t have a great story to share. Changes were subtle and I couldn’t find the words to describe it. The photos weren’t showing what I was experiencing. I second-guessed my decision not to get eclipse glasses so I could have at least watched the moon pass across the sun. If I had seen the partial eclipse, I could have at least experienced – and talked about – that.

As I tried to stay present, I suddenly realized something. Although it was mid-afternoon, I didn’t need my sunglasses to walk around outside. I wasn’t squinting at all. Even on cloudy days, I often need them because of the glare. While that may not mean much to many people, to me it was extraordinary.

The minutes passed and more of the sun was exposed again. Light began returning to what it had been pre-eclipse. I had heard that we were to get 80% coverage, but I questioned if it was less. Back inside, I looked it up: nearly 90%. Just over 10% of the sun’s light, was shining down. This surprised me. Even from such a small part of the sun’s energy, the light and the heat were only slightly changed. A surprising reminder of the power of nature.

I wanted to have some great story to tell, a unique perspective that shed a different light (sorry about that pun) on the eclipse experience. And I had it; it wasn’t dramatic and exciting; it was a harder story to tell.

And maybe that is the point. By choosing to be present and look at the world around me, I noticed change that was small and subtle. I am left awed by the true power of the sun; even if nearly 90% of it is blocked, there is still light and heat reaching 93 million miles away.

Everyone has a story to tell. They aren’t always big and grand, and I don’t think they should be. It is in the small things, the often overlooked things, that life happens. It is also those things that can connect us and help us relate to one another. We can all share our #eclipse2017 stories, to see how our experiences were the same and how they were different. We can relate and we can learn. Perhaps that is the story that needs to be told.

What was the eclipse like for you? What did you notice? Please share your story in the comment!