Here’s to New Chapters

I’ve been thinking about momentous occasions lately. The end of summer brings a lot of them. One grandchild began 3K just about the time another officially became a college freshman.

Just a few boxes filled with essential items for college life

I shared some thoughts about the start of college about this time last year. You can read those here and here. It suddenly got a lot more personal this year as one of those college freshmen is my eldest grandchild. Her life is about to change in ways she nor her parents can imagine.

. . . and in a flash, the younger sister becomes an only child, so to speak.

Naturally, my mind hearkens back to my own graduation summer and college freshman fall. Letters passed between three soon-to-be roommates. Who were we? What clothes should we pack? How should we decorate our dorm room? I was nothing but ecstatic and expectant. For years, I’d spent most of my summers away at one 4-H camp or another, so the notion of homesickness never occurred to me. I was only looking forward. My mood didn’t alter all summer.

Then came the big day, our family of five and all my luggage crammed in my parents’ car for the four-hour trip to the college of my choice. I sat on the right-hand side of the back seat in the soft pink shirtwaist dress trimmed with deeper pink hand-embroidered stitching on the collar edge and both sides of the collar-to-hem button placket. All hand-made by Mother. It was one of my favorites, a dress to help me put my best foot forward as I entered my new life.

It was only when directional signs to my school appeared, just a couple of miles from our destination, that I started to freak. Totally unexpected, my tummy brimmed with butterflies. While I was still mostly excited about what the future held for me, a tiny but powerful part was ready to turn around and head back home. Had I been on my own, I might have done just that.

I’m so glad turning around wasn’t an option. Even as the heady anticipation of that summer evolved into all-night exam cramming sessions, even as the grades I was used to in high school eluded me, even as idealism turned to reality and sometimes cynicism, even as I endured the agony of heartbreak, I had found my place. Not once did I consider giving up.

At most, I traveled home for school holidays and summer breaks. On occasion, I even stayed at school during shorter breaks. I appreciated the solitude of a dorm and campus empty of the hustle-bustle of daily student life. I could read for pleasure, reflect, organize, take solitary strolls through my favorite spots, daydream. There wasn’t much time for those things the rest of the school year.

I discovered new passions during my college years. I set out on a career path, though it morphed and morphed again in my post-college years. I learned what mattered to me. I discovered independence. Ideas jelled into philosophies. I found love. I lost love. I found it again. I survived. I learned that I could.

It’s not that I think college years are the best years of one’s life, a sentiment I’ve heard so many times. How depressing to hit twenty-one and think all the best times are behind you. No, I see those college years as a unique time, a time to grow, a time to explore, a time to discover what you’re made of. If all goes reasonably well, it’s a time to look back on with fond nostalgia, not as the best time of life but as one that holds sweet memories and provided important building blocks for the life to come.

As we said I goodbyes, I wished I could find the wisdom and the words to give my granddaughter the most brilliant piece of advice, the pithiest sentiment. In the end, all I could do was give her a hug and say, “I love you.”

I wish my granddaughter and all her fellow college freshmen the very best college has to offer, hopefully with only a few disappointments, though those are important to growth, too. Sometimes it’s our mistakes that define us; hard as they are, we need a few along the way. It’s what we do with them that matters.

Here’s to you, Starshine!

 

 

Bear Sighting

Have I told you about our late night bear visits? That’s right. We’ve had a bear in our front yard, on our wooded hillside, even on our deck. We named her Shadow. I tried to capture the tale in a rhyming story for the grandkids.

Okay, not the greatest shot, but hey, I was staring at a bear!

SHADOW

It was late, late one night—
I woke up to a crash!
A Kapow! And a Bang!
I jumped up in a dash!

I wandered outside
and what did I see?
A great big black bear
staring at me!

That bear was so black,
that bear was so big
with her cinnamon nose,
I just flipped my wig!

But why was she there
in my yard late at night?
She was eating my birdseed—
every single last bite!

What could she think
of seeing me now
peeking out in the dark
and watching her chow?

I thought she might run,
but I found that instead
she sat on her haunches
slowly turning her head

To give me a stare.
So I stared right back
till I suddenly thought
I ought to backtrack

Or she’ll give me a whack
with her giant bear paws,
or carry me off
in her great big bear jaws.

I tiptoed inside
and called Grampa Ron.
“Come here to the window!”
But the big bear was gone.

And so was the birdseed,
and the bird feeder, too!
We found it next day
at the edge of the wood.

Can you picture that bear,
feeder swinging from mouth
like a big picnic basket,
traveling south?

The next night and the next
she did not come back,
but the following night
what a thwack, whack, and crack!

A tree limb she broke.
Another bird feeder gone!
And where do you think
we picked up this one?

Right! Right you are—
at the edge of the woods
just where she left
the first of her goods!

She was so clever,
that great big old bear;
She gobbled her food
with nary a care.

She hasn’t returned.
I do not know why.
Maybe she’s patiently
waiting for pie!

So Beautiful It Changed My Life

What an amazing concept—something so beautiful it could change a life. Most of us, if we’ve lived long enough, have had at least a couple of life-changing experiences. But by nothing more than beauty? That was the writing challenge I was presented recently: a time when something was so beautiful it changed your life. It took me aback for a moment. But only for a moment. As I scoured my memory, it came to me.

Driving from Kentucky to the mountains of North Carolina in 1979, after the Gnome and I had made the mental decision to move but before we had actually taken action to make it happen (in other words, it would be easy enough to back out), I looked at the mountains on the horizon with new eyes. It was as if they were cloaked in blue-green velvet.

Their apparent softness overwhelmed me. Though I didn’t have words to articulate it, I sensed something magnificent. Those ancient rocks, some of the oldest in the world, had been worn down by eons of rain and wind; in the process, they had been reshaped from the haughty cragginess of youth into the gentle wisdom of age. Their strength lay in their graceful endurance. I didn’t want to back out.

We spent a week searching for a spot to call home Discouraged by all the not-right-for-us places we’d been shown, we were about to head back to Louisville with unfulfilled dreams. At the last minute, our realtor recalled a secluded piece of land tucked away on a mountainside, and our decision was made. In early April, things were still pretty barren; still, we were confident we’d found what we were looking for. We signed some papers and went back to Louisville to prepare for the big move.

When we returned to our mountain with all our worldly goods not quite three months later, my heart stopped as we drove into a meadow bursting with daisies. (How did the universe know to greet me with this outsize bouquet of my favorite flower?) 

It stopped again the first time I looked over a cloud-filled valley, mountaintops peeking out like islands in a sea of snowy foam.

I knew I’d never leave.

pict0068

(To read more about our adventure of moving and building a home with our bare hands while living in the wild, begin here.)

Here’s to What We Don’t Know

Another quick assignment in my Wednesday writing group—you’ll find the prompt in the last nine words of this post. (Unh-uh! No skipping to the end!)

Living in a tent on ten acres of land in a strange place with no water, no electricity, no phone access, no knowledge of local weather conditions—like that severe thunderstorms could and would pop up daily with no warning, no jobs, and no money but with two elementary-aged children, two neurotic cats, and a notion we could live this way for as long as it took to design our own house, get planning approval, and build the entire thing with nothing more than our own four hands and a few hand tools . . . well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Little Things Mean A Lot

Little Things Mean A Lot

Have you ever looked around your home and thought about which things are especially meaningful to you? If you’re like me, it won’t be the big-ticket items, whatever they are. Instead, it will be the little things, sometimes things you’ve held onto for no apparent reason, things to which no one else would attach any importance.

I took a virtual house tour recently and came up with a few special items.

1. The one I’ve had the longest is a Little Golden Book, Busy Timmy. I have a few others, too, but this one captures my imagination for a variety of reasons. Stereotypical as these books were when I was an impressionable tyke, they were my ticket to the wonderful world of words. Timmy could do anything, it seemed. I was just as proud when I could do something on my own—that was the whole idea, after all. I loved the illustrations. And I learned to read. I’ve had this book for close to seventy years. (How is that even possible?!) It never gets old, and it tickles me no end to share it with my grands.

These books are well worn!

2. You’ve surely been asked the question, “If your house was on fire and you could save just one thing, what would it be?” Though I’m sure the true answer lies only in the experience of the moment, my answer to the hypothetical has always been “my photographs.” I’m addicted to picture-taking. I get even more joy from perusing old photos—snapshots of friends and family, vacation scenes, nature photography. I love it all. Of course, I’d never succeed in my photo-saving quest—my albums fill close to ten linear feet of my bookshelf real estate. And that’s not counting the boxes full of loose snapshots or the photos on external drives and SD cards. But I’d do my best. They’re memories of the richest sort. Visual links to time and place that only exist in memory. Treasured keepsakes to share with next generations whose only tie to their past lies in pictures and words.

3. A large, two-tone brown mixing bowl was a fixture in Mom’s kitchen for as long as I can remember—the kind you might find in an antique consignment shop these days. Everything from meatloaf to cake got mixed in that bowl. It’s long had a hair crack down one side, but I still use it almost daily. It wasn’t just part of my childhood; it was part of my learning to cook, an essential item in my 4-H foods project. I mixed up my prize-winning cornbread in it, and I still do today.

4. Growing up, I never cared all that much for framed crewel, embroidery, or cross-stitched pieces. They were too old-fashioned for my taste. But when my mother was breaking up housekeeping, I grabbed a few for old times’ sake. Today, they hang on my walls in places of honor. Each one has a story. This one’s my favorite.

5. My dad took up woodworking in retirement, following in the footsteps of a couple of his brothers. He carved walking sticks, made wooden chimes, turned earrings from exotic woods. I especially liked the clocks he made of aged barn wood. He enjoyed coming up with corny themes for them. (Corn was one of his specialties.) On the frame of mine, he etched, “Spring Time.” Each numeral is represented by a small metal spring. It makes me chuckle. It’s just so Dad.  

6. After decades of filling up precious bookshelf space with my old college textbooks (not to mention hauling them move after move), I finally admitted I no longer had a use for them. Gosh, the psychology texts were embarrassingly outdated. But there’s just something about those old books: their look, their heft, their scent. The slick pages alone send me into paroxysms of nostalgic joy. No doubt part of the allure is the childhood memory of my dad’s sole surviving college text. When I was eight years old, I tortured my younger brother with “school,” while I, as teacher, busily underlined sentences full of words I didn’t understand in that chicken husbandry book.

Still, I knew it was time. Wistfully and semi-regretfully, I began packing my old books in a donation box. Then I came upon my treasured Milton text. I temporarily set it to the side. Not for its content—I tried rereading a few lines. Crikey! No, it was for what it represents: a small seminar class where I was fully present. I loved the challenge of it. I dared to speak out. I got listened to, I belonged, I thrived.

I kept the book.

I could go on and on, but you get my drift. Sentimental trinkets, whose meaning often lies in what they represent rather than the objects themselves—these are the things I value. One of my favorite Top 40 hits during my teens was the song, “Little Things Mean A Lot,” sung by Joni James. “Blow me a kiss from across the room/Say I look nice when I’m not/Touch my hair as you pass my chair/Little things mean a lot . . . Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls/champagne, sables, and such/I never cared much for diamonds and pearls/’cause honestly honey they just cost money.” In spite of some fingernails-on-the-blackboard grammar, the song’s theme aligned with my ethos then and now.

I guess it shows.

What about you? Have you taken inventory of your most precious things? Where do they rank on the scale of monetary value? Do you love them for what they are or for what they signify? Or is it just me? Feel free to share in a comment.

 

Remembering the Forgotten

I’ve been participating in a social media challenge called 52 ancestors in 52 weeks. It’s an effort to encourage learning about and sharing our various family histories in small, doable chunks. Participants are given a weekly prompt to start them on their way. Earlier in the year, one of the prompts was “census.” This is what I wrote.

(Disclaimer: I am not descended from Hardy Watkins. In fact, it’s unlikely he had any descendants. That’s why I want to tell his story. When Granddaddy became the superintendent of the Johnston County, NC, County Home (aka poorhouse) in 1930, Hardy was already there.)

If Hardy was like most folks who were relegated to the poorhouse, no one ever came to see him. Maybe he had no family at all. But neither the absence of visitors from the outside world nor his developmental disability did anything to dampen his enthusiasm for life. He was a good-natured, cheerful sort—until he was pushed too far. Then he’d curse a blue streak. He never missed a service at the nearby church—always sat in the front row. He couldn’t carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, but he sang his heart out on every hymn, always with hymnal in hand, even though he couldn’t read the words.

I grew up hearing tales about Hardy from my dad and his brothers, who lived in the poorhouse during Granddaddy’s tenure there. Whenever our family gathered for reunions, Hardy’s name inevitably came up. He was discussed with animated affection.

This is the tale they shared most frequently. On the rare occasion the boys could scrape a few coins together, they thought it was a hoot to offer Hardy a choice between a penny and a dime. He always chose the penny because it was bigger. At least that’s what they thought. They were grown before they figured out what he surely had understood all along: if he’d ever taken the dime, they’d have stopped playing the game. Instead, he maintained a growing collection of their pennies. It took a while, but with that realization, the brothers finally got their comeuppance.

I got curious about Hardy. I asked my genealogy-savvy husband to check the poorhouse census records. All these years I had thought Hardy was a kid near my dad’s age. But we discovered that when my then nine-year-old dad showed up at the County Home with the rest of his family, Hardy was forty-seven. He was born in 1883. Why, Hardy was even older than Granddaddy! We also learned that Hardy had arrived at the poorhouse long ago—sometime between 1900 and 1910. So, he had been there at least twenty years, perhaps closer to thirty, when Daddy’s family moved in.

According to newspaper reports, poor nutrition marked poorhouse fare in the early years of the twentieth century. Before Granddaddy took over management of Johnston County’s poorhouse, fruits, eggs, milk, and other dairy products were a rarity for the residents. Surely, such a diet would have a negative effect on one’s longevity. I already knew that for the average person born in the late 1800s, like Hardy, the average life expectancy was only forty-two or forty-three years. That got me to wondering what happened to Hardy.

Census records from 1940, the most recent available, showed Hardy was still living at the County Home. He would have been fifty-seven at that time. He had already defied the odds. Further exploration led to the discovery that, in spite of all the cards stacked against him, Hardy lived to the ripe old age of eighty-nine.

At the time of his death, Hardy was still in an institution. The poorhouse was no more. But the building was still there, having transitioned to a privately-operated care home for the aged and infirm in the mid-1950s. So, though the operation of the facility changed hands, it’s quite possible that Hardy stayed put. My bet is he lived all his days since arriving at the poorhouse in the same place, maybe even the same room. (Well, not quite. A new building had been constructed in the early 1920s so he would have moved at least once, though only a few hundred feet.)

Over time, poorhouse records seem to have disappeared. Only the rare newspaper article and a few official reports remain to provide any poorhouse history at all. Hardly anyone is left to tell the stories of the people who lived there.

If he’d had a chance, I wonder what Hardy might have told me about his life at the poorhouse, about his family, about his relationship with my dad and his brothers. About how he defied the odds. What was the rest of his story? Just like the rest of us, Hardy—and everyone else who lived at the poorhouse—had stories to tell. We’ll never know what they were. But they deserve to be honored.

The former County Home in Johnston County, NC, is currently an assisted living facility. You can learn more about Hardy, other poorhouse residents, and the County Home itself in my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression.

 

 

Miscellany of Memories

In honor of my Dillard grandparents on the hundredth anniversary of their wedding day, June 2, 1918:

Miscellany of Memories

No typical grandmother, she,
playful as a kitten in clover,*
cheating at cards, giggling
behind cupped hands at her own subversions.

I gathered warm eggs from the nests
while she rounded up a hen to chop off its head.
Together we plucked pinfeathers
before the evening’s fried chicken dinner.

Gizzards she kept for herself alone
as if I might want such awful offal.
Or was she claiming
sacrifice as privilege?

She practically forced me to be creative.
Sometimes I balked, but I still have
my embroidered aprons and copper tooling
to share with another generation.

Taciturnity described him,
but I knew—I knew he adored me.
With his twinkling eyes and gruff nuzzle
against my cheek, no words were needed.

He teased me with his cow jokes:
Black cows give chocolate milk.
Mountain cows have two short legs
and two long—keeps ’em from falling.

It’s late! Time to get up, he bawled
when dawn had hardly cracked.
Why? I laughed and pulled the covers higher.
He couldn’t sleep—why should I?

Was he lonely, awake alone?
Or did he want to cram
every possible moment with me
into our too-short weekends?

Her father spent his last days
with them, mind long gone, bedridden.
Wasn’t Boston Blackie on the radio
when the final call came?

 

My grandparents, William Garland and Georgia Olive Stillwell Dillard at their fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration

 

(* With thanks to my cousin, Jan Lazurri, for this perfect line unrepentantly lifted from her poem honoring Georgia)