Cardinals

Seeing cardinals throughout my life.Sometimes, when I bend down and look under the awning over the bathroom window I can see him. A male cardinal sitting near the top of the neighbor’s tree. A bright shock of red that stands out against blue sky and green leaves, that also provides much-needed color on gray days.

The tree is often a bother, dropping small leaves that land among the small lava rocks that border the patio. It seems I am constantly picking them up. Yet, that tree gives the cardinal a place to land so that I can see him, a sight that always makes me happy.

My great aunt began every day feeding the squirrels and birds that filled our yard. First, she would throw birdseed on the ground and placed it in feeders. As the birds began to arrive to eat, she’d crack open the pecans to feed the squirrels that would take them from her hand. Of the numerous birds that arrived, the red feathers of the male cardinal were the easiest to recognize, and the first bird I could identify.

Many years later, I moved to Memphis and discovered that a bush outside the garage was home to a male and female cardinal. After watching them flying in and out of the bush, I carefully pulled back the branches and discovered the nest they were building. A careful look a few weeks later revealed three pale, speckled eggs. Then one day I walked by the bush and was surprised as a flash of red flew out of the bush, just missing me. The male cardinal was warning me to keep my distance from the featherless babies that now inhabited the nest.

I moved a mile or so away a couple of years later. Sitting on my back patio, I enjoyed the variety of birds that flew by: mockingbirds, robins, blue jays, and cardinals. I often wondered if those cardinals were related to the ones who built the nest in the bush by the garage of my former home.

I don’t see as many cardinals in Florida. They don’t stop at the birdbath outside the living room window, perhaps because it is often filled with mockingbirds, doves, finches, small blackbirds, and the occasional woodpecker. So anytime I do see them, whether on the utility lines behind the house or perched atop the neighbor’s tree, it is a happy sight.

 

Gray Days

It has been cloudy and cold this entire month. I moved to Florida to get AWAY from this weather, but it occasionally finds me. Looking out at the gray clouds see in the picture reminded me of a time from my past, a week of gray, cold weather when I was a teenager. This was before I had ever heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which I believe is part of what was going on with me. It is a short story that you may be able to relate to. 

It was late January my freshman year in high school. As I sat in the front passenger seat of the car in the school parking lot, I looked out at the gray sky and shivered.

Heavy, dark gray clouds hung below the lighter grey sky. It was hard to tell where they ended and the gray concrete blocks of the building began. Even the trees, bare of their leaves, were a grayish black. How many shades of gray were there?

It had been this way for about a week, and I wondered when it would end, even if it would end. I could handle cold if there was at least some sunlight to warm my soul, if not the air.

The cold gray outside reflected how I felt inside – dull and lifeless. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed, pull up the covers, and not emerge until it was sunny and warm, there was color to be seen, and my soul brightened up.

 

Painted Bones

Growing up in the country, we always had a couple of dogs, our version of an alarm system. For a treat, Momma would give them bones leftover after cooking roasts and pork chops, and they’d carry them into the yard and happily gnaw on them for hours. Sometimes my sister and I would step on them while playing outside. It hurt for a minute but was just a part of our life.

Until that afternoon.

I was five or 6, my sister three years younger. Daddy was mowing the yard, and Great-Aunt Kate, who lived with us, was walking around outside checking on her chickens and flowers. Suddenly, there was a loud “clunk” as the mower picked up a bone and forcefully threw it out the side of the mower and into Aunt Kate. Daddy stopped the mower and jumped off while yelling to Momma to come help. Aunt Kate had been badly hurt.

After they got her in bed, my sister and I were given the job of walking through the yard and picking up all the pieces of bones we could find, to prevent this happening again. As we found bits and pieces, we proudly piled them on the steps to the back door. When we thought we had found them all, I told Momma, who thanked me and told me we could go back to playing.

My sister, however, had another idea.

Gathering her watercolors and brushes, she proceeded to paint the bones we had collected. Nothing fancy, just transparent blotches of colors on the dirty, chewed bones. Momma came out as she was finishing, and oohed and aahed over them, telling her what a good job she had done.

A few days later, a friend visited to see how Aunt Kate was doing. As Momma described all that had happened, she showed her the painted bones. The friend looked at them 0and said, “how creative!”

It was creative to see the bones differently, not as trash, but as a canvas to create on. It was creative take something that had caused pain and beautify it. And what I felt was that since I didn’t think of it, I was not creative. I think I’ve always believed that you either are creative, or you aren’t. It isn’t something to be learned or developed. And since I didn’t have the idea to paint the bones, I wasn’t creative.

Every time I have difficulty writing my stories, my first thought is I’m not meant to be writing and need to just move on to something else. Every time I look at Instagram and see the beautiful photographs, see the creative ideas people have for sharing their stories, I wonder why I have trouble coming up with ideas to post, and think, yet again, that I’m not creative. But I am tired of holding myself back, tired of assuming I’m not creative and want to challenge the assumption I’ve held for too many years.

I want to expand my definition of what creativity is. It isn’t just about seeing old bones as a surface that can be decorated. Taking leftovers and making a good meal out of them is creative. Finding a way to bring in more money is creative. Finding a way to change your life, however slowly, is creative. Some of us may naturally be more creative, but it is a skill we can all learn. Maybe it is more like a muscle that needs to be exercised, developed, refined.

In 2018 I want to challenge myself to explore being creative. Tell myself, as often as I need to, that I am a creative person. Accept that some days writing is hard, and keep working on it anyway, because that is what creative people do – keep working and trying different things.

Let’s see where a creative mindset will lead me!

 

Toy Trains

I don’t remember Christmas when I was two years old. Pictures show me smiling as I sit on my new tricycle. On the floor around me are my other gifts, including a small train track with a few cars on it.

According to the story, my dad wanted to get me a toy train set for Christmas. “You can’t give a girl a train set!” my mom told him. “Why not?” he asked. He thought it was a fine gift for any child. As the second of 3 boys, he wasn’t around girls while growing up so his reference point was what he and his brothers had played with.

I am sure you can imagine who actually played with the toy trains. Growing up he always had to share with his brothers, but this time he was in charge. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever played with it, and since I had one sibling, a younger sister born 7 months after I received it, my dad probably played with it more than anyone.

Twenty-five years later, my mom mentioned that several of their friends were putting train sets under their Christmas trees as decoration. She thought it was a fun idea, and of course, my dad was fascinated to watch them go around. That gave me an idea.

My dad was always hard to buy gifts for. If he asked for anything, it was something practical that he needed. A homemade card meant more to him than anything that could be bought, and in later years, his usual reply was “just come home for Christmas.” So buying him a train set, one that was his – no sharing with brothers, no pretending it was his daughter’s gift – seemed the perfect opportunity to give him something fun and completely unexpected.

The look of joy on his face when he opened that gift is one of my favorite Christmas memories as an adult. I didn’t often surprise my dad, but the train set did. It was a larger than the one I received, both in the number of cars and the size of them. After Christmas, he carefully padded the top of the dining room table, placed a large piece of plywood on top, attached the track, and played with the train set for months. He added more cars, and more track to handle them. Eventually, it entertained the grandchildren as it ran under the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights, letting a third generation share the joy of toy trains at Christmas.

You can listen to an audio version here.

Submissions Spreadsheet

One of the tasks of a writer is to keep track of where, and when, you have submitted articles. You need to know where so you don’t resend to a publication that has previously rejected it. You need to know when, so you can follow up when you don’t hear back.

There are numerous ways to keep track of them. What I use is a spreadsheet system described by C. Hope Clark in her article Keep 13 In Play. This system made sense to me, so I created a spreadsheet based on her suggestions. I like the spreadsheet and find it helps me keep track of things. The biggest drawback for me is there are 3 sheets to complete for each submission – one by date, one by title and one by publication – but I believe having access to the information in multiple ways helps me be more organized.

Click the link to start the download – Submissions Spreadsheet Blank,

It downloads in .xls format and you can edit it to suit your needs. You can move, rename and add columns, as well as change the size of the rows and columns. I’d love for you to give it a try and see if it works for you.

If you find it doesn’t work for you, google “free submission tracker” and see what else is available.

Good luck and keep writing!

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.

You can listen to an audio of this story here.

 

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.