A Little Girl and her Papaw – July 1976

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“You stay here, sissy. I’ll be right back.”

Papaw wiped his brow with his wrinkled white handkerchief and opened the car door. I sat in the passenger’s side of the vinyl-covered bench seat and watched him go, stuffing his hankie in his back pocket as he entered the store.

I studied the name of the store on the window. Mommy had been reading to me for as long as I my little five-year old head could remember and I could spell and read pretty well considering I didn’t start Kindergarten for another month. She had stopped spelling words in front of me one day after she told Daddy, “I hid her present in the w-a-s-h-r-o-o-m,” and I had made an inconspicuous beeline for the washroom.

“Sound it out,” I whispered. “Ham….lins. Harrrrd-waaare. Hamlin’s Hardware.” I knew the name. Daddy was always talking about going to Hamlin’s to get this or that. Mommy always said he didn’t need anything, he just went there to chew the fat. That sounded yucky to me and I could never understand why they sold fat, anyway. As far as I could tell, no one wanted it. My 16 year-old sister, Lisa, was always worried about being too fat. But she wasn’t. She was the most beautiful thing in the world with her long, blonde hair and paisley print bellbottom pants. She was like one of those girls on the covers of magazines that Mommy looked through while standing in line at the grocery. A few weeks ago, Lisa had been on a float in a July the 4th parade. It was a special parade, mommy had said. It was America’s 200th birthday. My brother had woven red, white and blue streamers through the spokes in his bicycle wheels and was in the parade, too. I had watched from Daddy’s shoulders, waving and wishing I could have rode my new red bicycle with training wheels in the parade.

I could see Papaw through the window talking to a man behind the counter. Papaw pushed his hat back from his forehead and scratched, then pulled the hat back down. He was nodding and every now and then he’d smile and say something.

I wiped my forearm across my brow, moving the sweat from one body part to another, a few drops dripping on the seat and slowly rolling into a seam. A lady in a red dress and banana yellow sandals walked into the store next door. It had bright colored flowers painted on the window. That looked way more fun than the hardware store. The sign on the door read, “Cool Jew-els.” I didn’t know what a Jew-el was. I’d have to ask Mommy when I got home.

I poked my head out the window a little bit, hoping for a cool breeze like the one we had cooling us off when we were driving to the store. Daddy’s car had air conditioning. All he had to do was…hey! That was it! I slid across the seat easily, the sweat on the backs of my legs creating a slip-and-slide effect. I rolled up Papaw’s window. I slid back across and rolled up mine.

I waited. I pushed my face close to the vents where the cool air came out in Daddy’s car. I didn’t feel anything, but Daddy said sometimes it took awhile. My blue, ruffled halter-top was wet around the top. I leaned my head against the dashboard, waiting for the coolness to kick in. I felt a little sleepy.

“Sissy! Oh my Lord. SISSY!!” Papaw had opened my door had pulled me out of the car, scooping me up into his arms.

“Hey Papaw.” I yawned, feeling a little woozy. “I think I fell asleep.”

He carried me to the sidewalk curb and sat me down, fanning me with his hat and looking at me with wet eyes.

My hair was stuck to my face and my eyes stung with sweat.

Papaw knelt down and cupped my face in his hands. “You, okay, sugar buttons? Why did you roll the windows up, honey?”

I pushed my wet bangs from my forehead. “When Daddy rolls his windows up, the air conditioner comes on. Yours must be broke.”

“Oh. I can’t…you almost…Oh, sissy.” He looked across the street at the courthouse, took a deep breath and blew it slowly through his mouth. He bent down and picked me up, even though he always said I was getting bigger and threatened to put a brick on my head to keep me from growing.

He took my hand and we walked into “Cool Jew-els” where the air was so cool, it felt like my sweat was freezing to my skin. Goosebumps covered my arms. But it felt good.

“Afternoon, sir. What can I do for you?”

The lady in the red dress worked there.

Papaw let me down and grabbed my hand. “Well, we stopped in to cool off, if that’s okay. And…and….well, I think I’ll buy my little sugar buttons something. Whatever she wants.”

The lady peered over the counter at me and smiled. “Well, I think we might have some things she’d like. Right here in this case.”

She directed us to a glass case with lots of shiny, sparkly colorful things in it. I was speechless. I could try on Lisa’s jewelry, but always had to put it back. Now I was going to get something of my own! I immediately saw what I wanted. It was a bracelet with three green daisies arranged in a triangle on a thin, gold wire band. Papaw bent down and fastened it on my wrist. “It’s a little big,” he said, “but as fast as you’re growing, it will fit soon enough. Unless I find that brick…” He winked, put a hand on each side of my face, and kissed my forehead.

“Bleck.” He said, sticking his tongue out. “You’re salty.”

I giggled and we left the store. We rode home with the windows down. He kept patting my hand and he explained that not all cars had air conditioners and that I should always ask an adult to turn it on and for pity’s sake, NEVER roll up the windows in a hot car again.

Walking into Grandmother’s kitchen, familiar smells met my nose. No matter what she was cooking, there was always an underlying aroma of ripe bananas lingering about. Maybe because there were ALWAYS ripe bananas in the kitchen. Today the kitchen smelled like cake AND bananas.

“Where have you been? I put your bologna sandwiches in the fridge 30 minutes ago.” Grandmother wiped her hands on her pink and purple calico print apron and stared at Papaw.

“Well….we….” He scratched the back of his head.

“Look what Papaw bought me!” I ran to Grandmother and showed her my new bobble.

“Ohhh. That’s pretty.” She looked at Papaw with one arched brow. She thought Papaw spoiled me a little too much.

“It’s a….a….” his face brightened. “It’s a late birthday present. We were all so busy with the parade, we never really got to celebrate sissy’s birthday. Why this young lady turned 5 more than three days ago and we haven’t even had a party yet!”

Grandmother was frosting a cake. I knew that cake. It was her famous banana cake. The one that no one could ever duplicate and everyone fought over at family gatherings. Tomorrow was Sunday. I’d have to wait ’til after church for Sunday dinner before I could have a piece. My mouth watered just thinking about it. That moist white cake with bananas separating the top layer from the bottom. The creamy frosting with an ingredient so secret that Grandmother kept the recipe in a small locked wooden box on her countertop.

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I know the secret ingredient. I’m not giving it away, though!

Papaw was standing beside Grandmother, talking in a low voice. I was admiring the way the light bounced off my new gold band.

Grandmother stopped frosting abruptly and turned to look at him.

“Oh, Acton! She could have…well, I just read about…”

Papaw interrupted her and calmly said, “I know, I know. But she’s alright. She’s all..right.”

He and Grandmother both looked my way. I smiled, so happy that I forgot about my missing front tooth.

Grandmother sighed, holding a frosting-covered spatula in her hand. Her face softened.

“Well. You both go along and get your sandwiches and some cold RC Colas out of the fridge. And be sure to save room. I think we might just have a slice of sissy’s banana birthday cake a little early.”

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(Scary as it is, the part about rolling up the windows so the A/C would come on is true. I used the deductive reasoning of a five-year-old and did that. Papaw really did buy me the green daisy bracelet. Unfortunately, he died shortly after of a heart attack. I still have the bracelet. I finally grew into it. And I still wear it.

Grandmother’s banana cake is the stuff of legend in our family. She is 93 and doesn’t make them anymore. But I do. I am now the one responsible for bringing the cake to family gatherings and they still fight over it. And that secret ingredient? I know it – but I think I’ll keep it in the family.)

The Right Words

This year has started off on a weird note. I’ve been to four funerals. Some were acquaintances; one was a dear friend and neighbor. As such, I currently consider myself somewhat of an expert in funeral services and appropriate sympathy behavior, and have determined two things 1) At a funeral, no matter where, who or what, preachers will read Psalm 23. Every. Single. Time. and 2) I hate writing in sympathy cards.

When I go to that great beyond, if I have the chance to write my eulogy, I am going to select…anything but Psalm 23. How many times can we be told that the Lord is our shepherd and not to fear the Valley of the Shadow of Death? I get it, okay? It’s not that I’m not a believer, but come on. The Bible is HUGE. There’s TWO testaments there. I pride myself on being somewhat original. Surely I can find some different words about comfort and God’s love and the next life. In addition, I would like some really deep and moving music and some quotes from individuals that I admire greatly. Like…let’s say….The Muppets. Kermit has some great quotes and rather than, “In the Sweet By and By,” how about Gonzo’s “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”.

 

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Of all the funerals I attended this month, my favorite (if there IS such a thing) was the one of my friend/neighbor, Gaye, whose preacher stood up and said, “This is a celebration of life. This is not a time to be sad. If you see the person beside you crying, reach over and slap them.” Gaye would have loved that. He then went on to read to Psalm 23 (sigh.) At least it wasn’t in a mournful, stoic way. It was in an uplifting way. Still – I think I’ll be shopping around for some other scripture. I only hope I have a lot of time to do research, but as Gaye’s brother, John, told us the week before she passed, “There are no guarantees.”

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After the funeral comes the part I dread most: writing the sympathy cards. I don’t know how one can expect to find the perfect words to comfort someone when they are experiencing a profound loss. “I’m sorry.” “She’s in a better place.” “She lived a good life.” How can these words fill the empty space left behind in a loved one’s absence? They seem hollow and robotic.

Maybe I focus a little too much on finding the right words. After all, isn’t it supposed to be the thought that counts? Maybe it’s because, in my writing, I’m constantly searching for the “right words,” or even the “perfect words.” I often walk away in the middle of writing because I can’t find the “right word” and my brain motor seizes up and refuses to move forward until the right word oils the gears. The difference is that in my writing, I can use the miraculous “delete” and “backspace” buttons to replace the “wrong words.” You can’t do that when you write a handwritten letter or a personal note. You can scratch it out, but it’s obvious that you’ve changed your mind and quite frankly, it makes the note look messy and it leaves the recipient focusing on trying to decipher what you originally said and not on what you actually said. I have torn up many a letter or card because the words weren’t right.

In order to confront my sympathy card word dilemma, I thought about what I would want people to say to me if I had experienced such a loss. What words would make me feel better? In doing so, I reflected back to my loss of Frankie (My beloved kitty. Cat haters, bear with me.) Yes, I heard all the usual words, but one person offered words that really comforted my soul. My friend, Gregg (a fellow cat lover), offered these words, “I know it’s hard and you will miss him, but no one loves him more than God.” That made me feel so much better. Without realizing it, my fear had been that Frankie was scared in a strange place and that no one would understand his — (I had to walk away here, because I had to think about the right word) — “cattitude.” Frankie tolerated no human other than myself. He might have allowed someone to scratch his head – for 10 seconds – and then a swat ensued. Who would show him where to go? Whose shoulder would he ride around on, purring? It was a relief to not have to worry about that. No one loves him more than God. Not even me. After nearly a year, I still miss him, but I no longer worry about him.

But that’s for a cat. And as much as he meant to me, I know that it’s not like losing a parent or a child or a near-and-dear friend or relative. And as much as I wish the words “No one loves her more than God,” would offer the same sort of comfort to my friends who are missing their wife, sister, mother, aunt….somehow even these words do not seem to be enough. Even Psalm 23 isn’t enough. And it’s not something you can Google. It has to come from the heart. I fretted about this for days leading up to the funeral. What profound, meaningful words could I offer? It took one simple conversation to figure out I was going at it all wrong – it’s not words or cards or flowers or donations or any of that malarkey. It’s being a presence. After Gaye’s funeral, I hugged her husband of 46 years and said, “I know you’ve heard this a million times, but I really mean it. If you need anything, let us know. I will bring you food (his eyes brightened here.) I will go to the grocery for you. We will do whatever you need. We want to help.” His sister-in-law, Jayne (Gaye’s sister) overhead my offer, smiled sadly and softly said, “Just be a friend.”

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Is that all? Really? So I had been overthinking the whole thing? If I had been listening, it was what my heart had been telling me all along and it was simple. All you have to do is be a friend. Even though those first few weeks are awkward and you don’t want to barge in and invade privacy and space and grieving, you can still let your presence be known. Whether it’s through dropping off a meal, paying a short visit, making a quick call — or sending a card with handwritten words that might offer a simple, yet profound comfort: “You have a friend. I am thinking of you. I am here for you.” And, “You aren’t alone. We miss her, too.”

Sometimes you find the perfect words in the gentle advice from a friend. Sometimes you find them among the thoughts of a green frog (or his creator, anyway.) Always – ALWAYS, you will find them if you sit quietly and listen to your heart.

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The Tiger Shark That Died in IKEA

I stared into the jewelry box. I needed something casual. Earthy. I was wearing jeans and a button down white knit shirt. Nothing fancy. I had on black flip-flops with Hawaiian print straps. I needed something…hmm…oceanic…tropical-like. Ah, yes. Shark’s tooth on a leather cord. Perfect. I fastened it around my neck and headed out the door.

I picked up my BFF, Pook, at the halfway point on our road trip to IKEA. I noted she was wearing a white jacket and jeans – we tend to dress similarly most of the time – unplanned. Car time is good chat time. We discussed everything, including books we’d recently read. I told her that I had been listening to the audio book version of “Life of Pi,” only had 5 minutes left, and really wanted to hear the end of it. She encouraged me to continue listening. So we did. I really liked the ending.

The sun illuminated the array of fall-colored leaves resembling a spilled bag of M&Ms in the sky on each side of the interstate. The temperature perfectly hovered between 75 and 80 degrees. In what seemed like no time at all, we were in the IKEA parking lot. It wasn’t too crowded. We had lunch in the IKEA cafeteria and commenced shopping.

I found the farmhouse sink I was after – and a lot of other stuff. By the time we made it to checkout a few hours later, the cart was pretty full. I started unloading my things onto the conveyer belt.

“Did you find everything you needed today?” asked the blonde-haired, bespectacled young girl in her blue and yellow plaid IKEA shirt.

“Yes, thanks. And more.”

“Great.”

She looked at me and smiled. I saw her glance at my necklace. Her smile flipped. She nearly unnoticeably shook her head and kept scanning.

I gripped the shark’s tooth, pressing the point of it lightly into my finger, and moved my cart to where Pook was bagging my items.

The long receipt printed out and, with a look of resolve, the cashier turned to hand it to me, along with my lesson for the day.

“You know. You really shouldn’t wear shark’s teeth. People kill innocent animals every day for their fur. Their teeth. Their tusks. Or just to put a trophy on a wall. Recently an American dentist killed a beloved lion just for sport. It’s just disgusting.”

I raised one eyebrow at her, looked at Pook, and then back at the cashier.

“Yes, I’ve heard of Cecil the Lion. I’m part of a petition to have the man who killed him take responsibility for his actions. I have rescued 4 cats and a dog. I can’t enjoy my pool because I am constantly swimming around saving the bugs that are drowning in it. I scoop up spiders, and even mice that my cats have caught, and carry them outside to safety. I volunteer for the local animal shelter and I’ve fostered kittens. I pull over and move turtles out of the road. But let me tell you something. When you are swimming in the Pacific, and a shark attacks you, you do what you have to in order to survive.”

My accuser was speechless. The lady behind me with the long, grey braid and floppy hat, and her white-haired hippie friend had stopped sorting through their cart and looked up. Hmmm. A little voice in my head said, “Let’s do this.” I cleared my throat and continued.

“Two years ago, I was vacationing in Hawaii. Oahu. For the first time in my life, I decided to try surfing. I signed up with a local surfer – his name was Brody – to take lessons. We arrived early in the morning. The beach was nearly empty. There were a few others there for lessons. After introductions and some sand-surfing, we entered the water. It was cool at first, but it didn’t take any time at all to warm up. Learning to stand on a surfboard in water is a lot harder than it looks. Did you know that?”

The cashier softly muttered, “No” and pushed her glasses up.

“About an hour into the lesson, I was feeling pretty comfortable with the board and the water, so I paddled out a little further into the water. Just as Brody yelled, “EVERYONE IN!” I felt the most excruciating pain in my leg. I screamed, and against the sun on the horizon, I saw it. A fin. I realized….I was being attacked by a shark.”

By this time, the thirty-something man in the “Old Navy” shirt, and his wife with a messy bun had appeared from behind the hippies, and were standing with mouths open, like fish waiting for someone to drop in a worm.

My palms were sweaty. I wiped them on my jeans.

“It’s funny how your mind works in shock-inducing situations. I was surprised how keen my thought process turned. While the shark still had a hold of my leg…the back of my calf…and he just had basically the skin and a little muscle…I remembered the knife I had tucked in my surf shorts. I had put it there at the last minute because I had read one time that you could get tangled in the cord that attaches the surfboard to your wrist and that you might need to cut it off. Panting, and about to pass out from the pain, I wrapped one arm around the surfboard and used the other to grasp the knife. I pressed the button. The blade shot out.”

I raised my hand up, gripping an air knife. The cashier from the next lane over was mindlessly scanning items as she looked my way.

“I plunged the knife into the water. Nothing. I realized I was going to have to try to lift my leg up to get the shark closer to the surface. I put both arms around the surfboard, and tried to lift my legs. I screamed, feeling flesh and muscle tear. But it worked, I saw the fin surface. And then, the beady eyes of the shark. I raised the knife. I plunged it in. Between. Those. Eyes. For a moment, the grip on my leg got tighter. And then. It loosened.”

The only sound was the “Beep. Beep” from a few cash registers over. My audience had grown. A glance at Pook indicated she was curiously amused. I grasped the bar on the cart, my knuckles turning white.

“The whole thing only took about a minute. At least that’s what they told me. I climbed onto the surfboard and passed out. When I awoke at the hospital, my husband was there and so was Brody. My leg was bandaged and it hurt like hell, but I didn’t lose it or anything. I have a huge scar and sometimes when it rains, I feel some twinges. I made it back home to Indiana and finished recuperating in the comforts of my own home. A few weeks later, I received a package in the mail. It was this necklace.”

I grasped the tooth in my between thumb and pointer finger and panned toward my audience.

Grey-braid-floppy-hat allowed a soft, “Ohhhhhh” to penetrate the patchouli-scented cloud surrounding her.

“I had killed the shark. A tiger shark. They had towed it in to land in order to keep other sharks from coming into the area and feeding on it. I wear this necklace as a daily reminder of how lucky I was. If I hadn’t had that knife….” I sighed and looked up at the beams in the ceiling. A few seconds later, I shook my head and looked back at the cashier who was picking at a button on her shirt and staring at the floor.

“So, yeah, I agree. You shouldn’t wear a shark’s tooth. Or any other animal’s skin, fur, horns, et cetera. Unless you’ve killed it yourself and only if it was a life-threatening situation. I’m not proud of what I did, but I didn’t…”

I allowed my voice to quiver.

“…I didn’t have a choice.”

With a deep breath, I looked toward the door.

“Crap. Looks like rain.”

I turned and pushed the cart to the exit, limping a little as I went.

Outside, I finally looked at Pook who hadn’t said a word, but raised her eyebrows when our eyes met.

“And the moral of the story is?” I said evenly, returning to a normal gait, looking at her from the corner of my eye, smiling slyly. “It’s okay to lie to assholes.”

notes to reader:

  • I did NOT actually have a confrontation with any of the nice cashiers at IKEA. 
  • The necklace I reference is one I bought on South Padre Island, TX on spring break in 1993. It is not a tiger shark’s tooth. It’s more likely a sand shark’s tooth, but sand sharks don’t generally attack humans.
  • I have an overactive imagination and was under the influence of Yann Martel when I wrote this in my head that morning while putting the necklace on. 
  • This is fiction. M’kay? Just like DeLoreans don’t really travel through time. At least not yet.

Confessions of a Bibliophile

oddthingThey say that the first step in recovering from an addiction is to admit that you have a problem. So.

I have a problem.

There. I feel so much better. Whew.

Oh. That doesn’t count? Well, perhaps I should start with the way I learned I had a problem.

At one point earlier this year, we considered packing up and moving south. It’s like an annual event when you live in Indiana. You can only take so many Siberian-like winters before you wonder why you still live here. Then summer rolls around and we forget about frostbite. And we also realize we’d miss our friends. And our family (most of them, anyway.) And we realize that we won’t likely find a peaceful four acres near a beach and that we would have to deal with neighbors (Jerry Seinfeld: People. They’re the worst.) And the packing. O. M. G. The packing. It wasn’t the furniture I was worried about. Or the myriad of kitchen utensils. Or the (insert ridiculous number of) shoes. It was….twas…the books.

(Clears throat.)

My name is Shawn and I am a bibliophile.

As a lot people with “addictions” do, I lay blame on my childhood. On my mother. Mom read a lot (and still does), but didn’t have a huge collection of books. She was mostly a library book reader, which worked out best since we lived in a two bedroom, one bath trailer on the river. No room for an excessive amount of books. When I was just learning to read, nearly every night I’d fall asleep with my head on her shoulder, trying to read the words in whatever book she had propped up on her chest. I think she underestimated my ability to “sound it out,” because at one point I asked, “Mommy. What is an or-gee?” Mom likes to tell this story, but would KILL me if she knew I was making this public. Before you get the wrong idea about her, she likes romance novels – not porn stuff – but mushy, riding off into the sunset types of books, with or without a cowboy. I’m not sure in what context “orgy” was used in her book. After all, I was only five. All I know is…shortly thereafter; she started checking out books at the library for me. Age appropriate books from the children’s section, not books about love fests…or whatever. I also started to pick out books at yard sales. Those were the best. Because I could keep them. I still have a lot of those books. Golden Books. E.B. White collection. Laura Ingalls Wilder collection. “The Boxcar Children.” Dr. Seuss. My first loves.

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And the love affair was only beginning.

Though I have given the proper definition of a “bibliophile,” I think it’s really just a euphemism for “book whore.” I will pick up books anywhere. Book stores. Yard sales. Flea markets. Dark alleys. One time I even dumpster dove. Last week I was at a local library and they were giving away books. A sign on the book give-a-way table said, “Free Books. Take as many as you can use.” I took a few. Then sharked by again and they had restocked. I took a few more. I decided not to take ALL of them. That would not be fair to fellow bibliophiles who also have bookshelves with no space for more books but continue to bring them home anyway.

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I’m not a particularly picky bibliophile, either. I don’t care about binding or mint condition. I only have one “first edition” book, but it’s an Ernest Hemingway and it’s protected by laser beams and a killer cat. And do I care if someone has written in the book? Are you kidding? Sometimes I’ll buy a book BECAUSE someone has written in it. Take this one, for example. It’s from a 1920 copy of Sir Walter Scott’s “Kenilworth.” I bought it because, while searching for the date, I discovered this inside the cover:

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I love this stuff. As a writer, my mind skyrockets with “what ifs.” What if this book belonged to Margaret Van Petten and she was in love with Gerald Wo, and Gerald didn’t know it and he started seeing another girl, and Margaret was one of those Jane Eyre types who always wanted to do the right thing even when it was heartbreaking, so she decided she would like to meet Gerald’s new admiration so she could extend her blessing and best wishes. Yes, I know that’s a run-on sentence, but that’s how my mind works with these things. You can’t pause. You have to roll with it or you lose it. So I didn’t buy the book for the “story” but for the STORY. Ya know? I’m not even sure I’ll read this book, which brings me to another confession:

I have not read about half of the books in my “library.”

I can’t blame mom for this. I blame Amazon. When the Kindle first came out, I scoffed at it. “Harrumph. There is nothing better than a book in your hands.” Then Santa unexpectedly brought me a Kindle about 6 years ago. Damn thee, Santa! I’m on my second Kindle. The convenience of it is just too damned…convenient. I now have millions of books at my fingertips ANYWHERE I GO!! I can even read when I’m driving! I just tape the Kindle to my steering wheel and ….okay, not really. But I CAN download audio books on my Kindle, plug the AUX jack into the stereo, and listen to books driving down the road. I’m currently listening to Jim Gaffigan’s “Food: A Love Affair” which still kind of makes for dangerous driving; you may spit-take your coconut water onto the windshield and blur your view.

I do read actual books, too. A few months ago I purchased “Trip Through Your Wires” which is brand new and was written by my most recent favorite professor, Sarah Layden. I got within the last two chapters and couldn’t read anymore for a few days. What if I hated the ending? What if it left me hanging? What if? What if? (There’s those “what ifs” again!) The book stared at me from the last place I had it. I kept moving it around so it would stop taunting me. And finally…I finished it. It wasn’t disappointing. Thank goodness. I didn’t know how I was going to tell her if I thought it sucked.

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Speaking of book placement, one habit of bibliophiles is stacking books in places where we think no one will notice them. On our nightstands. On the toilet tank. In the kitchen randomly interspersed among cookbooks. In that basket under the end table in the living room. The idea is that if we distribute books throughout the house, our book hoarding will go unnoticed by our spouses, roommates, parents, etc. So far, so good. Although I have an exceptionally understanding husband. He even TAKES me to bookstores and waits patiently while I read inside covers and do little piano finger moves down the rows of books until I find that one that needs to go home with me. I hug it as I walk to the cash register. As a side note – I also do this at animal shelters. Which is why we haven’t visited one in several years.

So back to packing all my books….well, we aren’t moving. Crisis averted. Maybe in a few years we’ll think about it again. That gives me plenty of time to determine what to do about the exploding bookshelves. I AM planning to have a yard sale this fall. I’ve already started gathering my wares. A table and chairs. Knick knacks. Movies. Artwork. Books…hm…where are the books? I’m supposed to…sell…my BOOKS? Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a kidney or my Grandmother’s ruby ring? Epiphany: to books, this house is like the Hotel California. You can check (one) out any time you’d like, but it can never leave. I will loan you a book, but you’d better bring it back because it lives here….FOR-EV-ERRRR.

I doubt I’m going to get rid of any books.

I’m certain I will buy another bookshelf.

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Operation Groundwork – Planting a Seed of Hope for Veterans

(Wrote this for the Jamestown Journal and the story of this young woman and her determination is too good not to share.)

Tucked just off State Road 75, south of North Salem, IN is a small farm with a big heart. Blue Yonder Organic Farm (BYOF) is owned by Sara Creech, an Air Force Veteran with a dream that started as a seedling and continues to grow.

Sara and her dog, B.J.
Sara and her dog, B.J.

Sara and her husband, Charles, met while serving in Qatar; she as a trauma nurse, he as an Air Force pilot. Their deployment there overlapped by only two weeks, but she says she knew that he was “the one.” Despite being deployed multiple times to different places, they were eventually married in Florida and began their lives together. When Charles was diagnosed with cancer, the couple began researching alternative medications and healthier eating options. They learned that many foods contain harmful chemicals, which increase rates of cancer. They began eating only organic foods or food that they harvested themselves. They visited organic farms to learn about local food movements. It was then that they decided that when Charles retired from the Air Force, in two years, they would look into starting their own organic farm. Together, Charles and Sara fought fiercely against his cancer. Unfortunately, it was one battle they would not win. “After my husband died, I just laid around for about 6 months, reading everything I could about agriculture and organic farming.” One day she woke up and said, “You have a new mission. It’s not over.” That’s when the next chapter of her life began.

Mural painted by local artist, Marge Kincade.
Mural painted by local artist, Marge Kincade.

While still in Florida, Sara started looking for property in the Midwest. She found the 43-acre property in North Salem and excitedly put an offer on the farm without even seeing it. It was a “short sale” and after three long months, she finally received news that it was hers if she could close in two weeks. She quit her job, packed up and moved to North Salem. In 2012, Blue Yonder Organic Farm was established with strawberry plants and 3 chickens from Tractor Supply (she now has over 1,000 chickens!)

A portable hen house made from recycled billboards!
A portable hen house made from recycled billboards.

For Sara, starting a farm was not merely about producing healthier, organic produce and meats – it was about healing. As a Veteran, she understood that military Veterans often feel disconnected when they return from active duty. She understood that they needed something to bridge the gap from deployment to civilian life. And that has what she has done. She has paired returning Veterans with agricultural production – and the healing has begun.

Currently, Blue Yonder Organic Farm offers three programs for Veterans.

  • Connecting Veterans in the Community Picnic: the first Sunday of each month from 1:00 – 4:00, Sara hosts a picnic on the farm for Veterans and their families. All Veterans are welcome regardless of when or how long they served. Grilled meats are provided and guests are asked to bring a side dish to share. By doing this, Sara hopes to erase some of the isolation and disconnection and replace it with a sense of connection to a broader military family that fellow Veterans may not have even known existed right in their own community. Tours of the farm are available, too! The next picnic is August 2. The farm is located at 5262 N SR 75, North Salem, IN 46165

  • Operation Groundwork: this is a one-week intensive training program, geared toward Post 9-11 Veterans interested in learning about agriculture as a business opportunity. Participants experience hands-on training and classroom instruction. They visit various farms to ask questions of the farmers. Some of the topics included in the program are fruit and vegetable farming, small-scale livestock farming, aquaculture, farmstead dairy and shiitake mushrooms.

  • Operation Groundwork Incubator Program (OGWIP): two select Groundwork graduates (per year) who are ready to take the next step to start a small farm enterprise can participate in this two-year intensive partnership with Blue Yonder Organic Farm. Participants have low cost access to the land and equipment, marketing opportunities and educational expertise.  Housing is provided throughout both years of the program and a stipend is offered during the first year. During the second year, the partnership with Blue Yonder Organic Farm continues, but all profit/risk is assumed by the participant. This fall, a recent Groundwork grad will use 5 acres at BYOF to raise milking goats.

After I visited BYOF, learned about the programs and saw everything that Sara has going on, I couldn’t imagine how everything got accomplished! But she has a solid support system. Her parents live on the farm, as does her 93-year-old Grandpa. Her sister (and her family) help out, too. She has also hired a farm manager, Steve Gaddis, an Army Veteran, who has farm experience and is an avid outdoorsman. And perhaps most importantly, her 7 year-old German Shepard, B.J., makes sure the perimeter is secure.

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200 holes drilled into each log contain shiitake mushroom spores!

In addition to the offered programs, BYOF can be found at five local farmers’ markets each week (Brownsburg, Carmel, Zionsville, Farm to Fork at Normandy Farm, and the Eskenazi Health Farmer’s Market in downtown Indy.) BYOF offers a wide variety of fresh produce, fruits, organic meats, maple syrup, eggs, and honey using certified organic methods. These products are sold under the label of Homegrown by Heroes, a national certification designating agricultural products grown by military Veterans.

Raspberries! I can testify - they are delicious!
Raspberries! I can testify – they are delicious!

Though the farmer’s markets and egg sells help with funding the farm, it’s not quite enough. Sara has a night job (as if she doesn’t already have enough to do!) She receives some assistance from local churches, personal donations, and occasional grants from the National Resources Conservation Service. She was able to build a hoop house (a sort of greenhouse) with one such grant. She has applied for non-profit status and hopes to be able to apply for more grants when the status is approved.

Who doesn't love a little baby chick?
Who doesn’t love a little baby chick?

To talk to Sara and walk around with her on the farm, it is very easy to see that she is passionate about what she is doing. “There’s something about planting a seed and watching it come to life,” she says. “It’s a sign of hope. It helps heal the piece that people leave behind (in combat.) There are no winners in war. This is an opportunity for Veterans to be part of something that’s healing…to heal the hidden effects of war, such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder.) It’s an opportunity to feed the community, heal the land and heal the body, physically, mentally and spiritually.”

If you’d like to learn more about Blue Yonder Organic Farm or Operation Groundwork, you can visit their websites, www.operationgroundwork.orgwww.blueyonderorganicfarm.com and both organizations are on FaceBook.

Sara may be reached by email at sara@blueyonderorganicfarm.com or by phone at 765-336-1154. If you would like to make a donation, please send it to Operation Groundwork, 5262 N SR 75, North Salem, IN 46165.

Thank you, Sara, for your service, and for your dedication to helping others who have served.

 

Beans, Beans, the Musica..(Stop! You can’t say that here!)

 

IMG_6970We recently took a “let’s just wing it” road trip without any hotel reservations or solid plans. We knew we wanted to head south or southeast and that was about it. We found ourselves on a back road in Chestnut Hill, Tennessee one day. Out of nowhere, there was the Bush’s Baked Beans plant and museum! It’s not often you get to visit a museum dedicated to baked beans (actually…pretty much never), so naturally, we had to stop.

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I have to admit, for a family fortune built on baked beans, the place was pretty impressive. Things we learned 1) The business was started in the early 1900s by A.J. and Sallie Bush. 2) Bill weighs approximately 137,606 beans 3) They keep the “secret recipe” in a case that is guarded by laser beams. I didn’t want to see it, anyway. My mom makes way better baked beans than they do. It’s just too bad she’s never tried to sell them!

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The gift shop was huge and had a lot of neat things. It was not all bean related, but there certainly were plenty of different cans of beans for sale!

DSC_1076I grabbed a can of refried beans, some cat bookends, and a small gift bag. I started looking around and noticed something kind of…odd. Despite there being hundreds, if not thousands, of items in the store, I realized that they just completely skirted around the fact that everyone associates beans with…you know…um…tooting…bottom burping…the winds…stepping on a duck (know what I mean?) It’s too bad, really. They could probably make another million dollars with t-shirts that said, “I visited the Bush’s Baked Beans Museum and all I got was gas.” They could even add a gas station out front!!

Let’s face it, for the most part people think “stinkers” or “sphincter whistles” are funny. Especially men. Case in point: noting how large and nice the museum was, I whispered to my dear husband, “Geez. The baked bean business must be good.”

His reply?

“Yep. Dern tootin’!”

Even I had to laugh at that.

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Back to My Roots

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“Are we going to do what we did last year for Mother’s Day?”

Mom’s question caught me off guard. I couldn’t remember what we had done the previous year for Mother’s Day. Was it the usual family breakfast? Ugh. I hoped not. I know that sounds awful, but I don’t usually eat breakfast and getting up at 6:00 a.m. and driving 90 minutes just to sit there and watch everyone else eat wasn’t my cup of tea. I love my family, but they are a lot to take in anytime; and, early in the morning? Forgettaboutit. Besides, Grandmother didn’t even go anymore. Being almost 93 years old, she just doesn’t get out much. A Mother’s Day breakfast without Grandmother just seemed pointless.

Wrinkling my nose, expecting the worst: “What did we do?”

“We had lunch and planted flowers at Grandmother’s.”

Whew. “Oh yeah! Yes! Let’s do that again!”

This made me really happy on so many levels. For one, I wouldn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn. For another, I’d get to see my Dad. But the main reason – I would have Mom all to myself. It was hard to have those real Mom/Daughter talks with 20 other people around – even if (and especially if) they were all family.

I drove to Mom and Dad’s the Friday before Mother’s Day. Mom, Dad and I sat around the dining room table and chatted and joked and talked about the usual…food, gardens, IU. My Dad smiled at me, patted my hand and told me I was “a dandy.” I stored that in my memory bank to retrieve on those days when I certainly don’t feel like I’m much of anything. Dad is 85. I treasure each and every one of those moments.

Finally, with air kisses and a horn honk to Dad who was standing on the porch waving and wishing us a bon voyage, Mom and I drove away on our little adventure. Our first stop was the China Buffet. Mom LOVES the China Buffet. I never go because hubs refuses to eat there and I know it’s bad for me. Being with Mom is like having a free ticket to eat crap. We both ate the heck out of some Crab Rangoon – and we both walked away miserably happy.

The next stop was WalMart. I hinted at Lowe’s, but Mom was driving and I wasn’t going to argue. The lines were long in the garden center, it was hot and Mom’s patience was wearing thin. My Kentuckian-tempered Mom has a not-so-subtle way of expressing her displeasure – and disapproval.

“Crap. She has a whole damned trashcan full of stuff.”

Mom was referring to the lady in front of us who not only had a cartful of plants, but also, out of nowhere, seemed to have produced a small garbage can full of other miscellaneous items.

Somehow, when I’m with Mom, I turn into the voice of reason. I can think of no other time in my life when I’m this person, but with Mom, it’s necessary in order to avoid all out war. Like the time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when she told the man in front of her that he’d make a better door than a window. I gently pointed out that all she had to do was move over a few feet to see. And now, the voice of reason spoke again.

“Patience, Mom. We’re lucky we’re here today instead of tomorrow. The day before Mother’s Day is going to be insane.”

Mom wasn’t paying any attention to me. She was focused on what was going on ahead of us. Now the lady in front seemed to be arguing over the price of plants with the cashier – who was Mom’s next target.

“Good Lord, sis. What the hell is that in his ear?” She said this kind of under her breath. And I emphasize “kind of. “

The cashier had one of those disc thingees in his ear lobe – about the size of a quarter. Fortunately, he was too engrossed in the pricing conversation to hear Mom’s dig.

“Yeah, I’ve seen that before. Just a kid trying to express his individuality is all.”

If ever there was a true expression of “harrumph,” I heard it that day.

We made it out of there unscathed. With about 30 plants stowed preciously in the trunk, we drove to Grandmother’s. I thought maybe the voice of reason was finding a place in Mom’s head because when someone pulled out in front of her, instead of honking and flipping him the bird, I heard her mutter, “Patience, Susan.”

However, I was sorely mistaken. Turning onto Grandmother’s road, Mom again expressed disdain.

“Aw DAMN! Deeno’s friend is here.”

Deeno is my cousin who lives with my Grandmother. He doesn’t have a job. I’m actually not sure what he does. It really bugs Mom. I don’t necessarily agree with it, either, but Grandmother is still very “with it” mentally and she can make her own decisions. Apparently, Mom doesn’t care for Deeno’s friend, either.

“Be nice, Mom. It’s Mother’s Day.”

Well, it wasn’t YET, but we were there to celebrate it, so my reminder to her was to possibly keep her from saying unkind things to Grandmother about Deeno – which only upset Grandmother and made for tense moments for me.

For the most part, she was good. She kept her jabs at a low rumble to where only I could hear them as we worked in Grandmother’s flower/rock garden. First we had to remove the dead plants from the prior year. The geraniums came out easily. The asparagus fern’s roots, on the other hand, had really dug in. As I reached for a small spade from the basket of garden tools I had brought, I looked at Grandmother who sat quietly in her chair on the patio, wearing a dirty pair of old winter driving gloves to protect her delicate hands as she planted purple and white petunias in pots. I glanced at Mom whose hair clung in sweaty black ringlets to her face as she watered the plants that I had just put to bed. I smiled at the irony. I was not just digging up roots. I was getting back to them.

Back at Mom and Dad’s house, Mom and I recounted our day to Dad. I raided their fridge and ate a piece of Spam (which I have not had in decades and just wanted to remember what it tasted like. Salty!) We enjoyed White River cocktails (what Mom and Dad call ice water because they live on White River and think their well water tastes really awesome – it just tastes like home to me.) From across the table, Dad studied me.

“You’re letting your hair get dark.”

My Dad had been the first to notice this other than my husband.

“Yeah. I’m gradually going back to my natural color.” Being blonde was just too hard to maintain, especially since my hair grows so fast. I had been blonde as a child, but throughout the years my hair has gotten darker and darker. I fought it. But one day the week before, I had gone through old photo albums and noticed something. All the matriarchs in my family had dark hair – and they were beautiful.

(L) Grandmother, circa 1941. (R) Mom, circa 1957.
(L) Grandmother, circa 1941. (R) Mom, circa 1957.

“It looks good,” Dad said approvingly.

“Thanks.” I shrugged and added, “I guess it was just time to get back to my roots. So to speak.”

Driving home, I had time to reflect on the day. To reflect on my life and family. I thought about how different Mom and I were. She has always been a feisty vocal one, saying the first thing that comes to mind no matter the consequences. I ponder my words and try to avoid conflict. I wondered how we had come to be such opposites. And then…

…someone cut me off as I was driving.

I honked. I cussed. I pumped my fist.

I paused.

I laughed.

Deep down – at the roots. Mom and I? We weren’t so different at all.

Happy Mother’s Day to all Moms out there. The Moms from birth, the adopted Moms, the Grandmoms, the like-a-Mom-to-me Moms, the Stepmoms, and even critter Moms.

 Embrace your Mom today. All of her. Right down to her roots.