Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Telephone Call

The time was the 1930s. My parents both worked nights, including Christmas Eve. I was too young for our small family to have formed any traditions at this time of the year. On this particular evening I was staying with my dad at his job. He was a telegrapher for the Postal Telegraph Union, later to be called  the Western Union. 

In those early days there weren't many  crayons and coloring books, so my responsibility while waiting for daddy's job to end at midnight was to stay quiet. People came and went sending their families a beautiful Christmas telegram.  Noise from electric machines was loud in the back of the room. Local messengers came in and out to grab local 'grams to deliver immediately.

1938 clipping

The office was one large room with a small area entered by the front door where a counter ran from one end of the room to the other. Here, patrons composed and finalized their  telegrams. More telegrams were sent in those days because many people didn't have telephones. To receive a telegram--strips of paper upon which a message had been typed then pasted onto a sheet of paper with a big banner at the top declaring: POSTAL TELEGRAM could be joy or sadness.

For a time I sat looking out the wide windows at the rushing people outdoors. In those days much purchasing occurred Christmas Eve.  When people became less, I'd get up and hop across the front of the room from one linoleum block to the other, counting the entire time. Never did the numbers change.

At one end of the counter for patrons was a telephone booth. The phone rang. I didn't move. I had never heard that phone ring. I continued to sit, the phone continued to ring. Finally, one of the workers in the back yelled, "Get that, Vivian, I think that's for you!" I didn't rush. Who called little girls? With a bit more effort from the man in the back, I opened the door, stood on the seat and picked up the small black receiver, leaned into the phone and said, "Hello?" 

"Ho, Ho, Ho, is this Miss Vivian?"

"Yessss, sir."

"Well, Miss Vivian, this is Santa calling you from the North Pole. I'm about to leave and wanted to be sure I have your list filled."

My heart pounded like a hammer on a nail.  Santa had called me! Nervously I recited my three requests: a pink dress with pockets, a Sonja Heini doll wearing ice skates, and a barrette for my hair.

"That's what I have on this list, too, little lady. When you get home, go right to sleep, and I'll be there before you know it! Bye now."

I dropped the receiver, ran through the swinging door separating the front from the back and jumped up and down like a toy clown, and yelled to the night workers, "I just talked to Santa Claus. " They hugged and danced and said, "What a lucky girl you are!"

After closing time Daddy and I hurriedly walked the six blocks home. I jumped into bed without any supper. I couldn't wait to wake up the next morning.

Many years passed before I asked my Dad who called that night. He admitted it was he; but I declared "it surely didn't sound like your voice." That story became a part of our celebrations every Christmas until I left home.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

A Know-It-All Person

You know people who'll insist they know a subject better than you. Oh, if you could sweep them under the carpet, wouldn't you feel better? Well, I'm one of those. I pride myself remembering many facts and I have a stern personality to back my decisions/opinions. My serious mien doesn't scare anyone.  But when I know something to be correct, I'm out to prove it.

For instance, advising my daughter and her husband about the new plants they should put in the yard. I've been through so many plants and flowering bushes and discarded the same number through forty years that I know what is best for OUR yard.  Mind you, not anyone else's.

Despite never having studied plant science, two summers visiting plant growers in New Jersey on the lookout for just-the-perfect greenery and blooms to sell in my son's Kudzu store in Barryville, NY., I gained a lot of expertise. Twice a month I'd journey fifty miles south where the soil is a gorgeous black and flowers and plants flourish.  At the end of one summer's discussion with nursery owners as I selected the best plants, I loaded up on the Latin names so I could repeat them to store customers.  I learned which plants liked sun, which felt good in the shade, which ones grew best in pots, which needed no special care.  Armed with this knowledge in one summer, I could have opened a nursery.  I visited some of the prettiest companies showing their best in acres of tilled fields.  I loved these trips and what I learned.

When my daughter and her husband bought our house with the idea we parents would remain en situ, I tried to remain quiet about the changes made inside the house. When it came to hiring a landscaper, I sat on edge. These fifty-some year olds didn't ask me for advice, since I'd planted more shrubs and blooming plants in our yard than they..My choices often were not those of my husband's, who didn't like to dig in the soil.  I'd choose a plant, dig a hole and let it marinate for a year. Then my husband would play "Let's change shrubs" The more I planted the more he'd pull up because he didn't like the leaf shape or the blooms turning yellow, or the black spots that formed on leaves after a rain. You can tell we didn't see eye to eye about beauty.  

The day the landscape plans arrived to discuss any changes, I sat down and googled all the plants to be sure I was correct about shade and sun.  I pointed out to son-in-law the shady areas of the front yard, stressing that the plans call for sunny plants, vice versa. He insisted "things have changed since you last planted anything in the yard.”A nice way to say “You don’t know anything, you’re too old.” When the workers came one morning with threatening clouds overhead, I watched as hostas found their place in the sun and small palms in the shade. I barked at the men, "You have to move these to there and those to here!" I had the authority of experience, didn't they know? With a hang-dog expression boss man looked at me and said, "I can't change anything on the plans." I stomped (well, almost) into the house and saw hosta food within easy reach of the ten deer I'd seen last week crossing the road.  Don't tell me there's this spray and that one that will drive the deer away!

On one of my trips in New Jersey was a visit to a hosta farm.  These variegated green leafed plants originated in the Orient and brought to Europe in the 1700s.  Today there are over 2,500 cultivars  and I believe this farm has every variety planted under shady trees scattered over five acres

My first question to the grower was "How do you protect the leafy greens from deer mouths?"  His answer, "There's not anything except daily spraying and watchful eyes.” Their kids had the fun of watching out for deer and other small animals,, plentiful in the area.  Some precious hostas that cost tons of dollars had a fence enclosure. I became enamored with the varieties and realized our local nurserymen never sell any but a few of these varieties.  Some were as large as four feet across. One plant would suffice for a bed.  So with that visit I became an expert on hostas.

Our house now sports a beautiful landscape. The workers have gone home and left a beauty of greenery speckled with yellows.  Hostas will wink in the sun, starve for water in the summer's heat. By next summer we’ll have the prettiest front yard of anyone on our block.   How many days will pass until the deer find their midnight supper at our front porch?  

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Tribute to My Sister

I remain at home a lot now. At my advanced age I find little entertainment to take me away. However, I feel the pressure to finish family genealogy and write more about my family.  I began family stories in earnest ten year ago. Mostly I write about my growing up front the 1930s until now.  Amazing I can remember my growing up years better than my today time.  I don't keep a journal.  Too much triviality is written there.  My sister faithfully kept her journal for over ten years. I have to read hundreds of pages to glean anything of any importance.  It is through her writings that I find the key.

Sis died December 31 of last year. She passed away on my second son's birthday. How fitting. We'll never forget the date.  Sis was persistent in keeping a journal, even as she lay dying, she'd ask for her "notebook." Barely able to hold a pen she hen-scratched something, unable to follow the lines, weaving her words only she could understand.

She and I had decided a year before to donate our bodies to the local University of Mississippi Donor Program.  We'd never been ones to visit our parents' burial places, change dry flowers to new, sweep off the leaves from their eternal beds. We didn't want our families to feel pressured to honor us by spending thousands of dollars that could help a grandchild finish college or pay for summer camp or  purchase new books to read.  Little did we know she'd be the first to leave.

I gathered her writing books, not the journals, and planned to read her thoughts penned in moments of joy, of unhappiness, of contemplation. I was six years older than she and we never had much in common. I became her little mother, taking care to see she was dressed in the mornings as a child, then walk her to nursery school and later to elementary school. I reminded her of her duties, her responsibilities, and at the same time giving her permission.  I forgot and stayed her mother when she was grown.  Our mother worked full time. We were latch-key kids in the 1940s. Sis never forgot my rule over her. As an adult I gave her advice, wanted or not, about boyfriends( me, with little experience). I felt I was a good critic of guys. What I failed to realize in those early years was that regardless of what I preached, Sis followed her own heart. In her writings she poured her heart into the pages describing her unhappiness with what she had been dealt. She mentioned often my "meddling." I learned a lot about Sis from the words she poured onto three-holed notebook paper.

We became close when we retired.  We made up for lost time in the 20 years left of her life. We traveled together to writers' conferences, to historical points in the South, to western US to see the national parks in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico.  I showed her places we as kids accompanied our parents when they took us "out west" in their new Ford Station wagon with "real wood sides," as the advertisements stated.  She was eight years old, I fourteen. I still had memories of the places we stopped and when we revisited these sites, she had no memory of them.  Through my oral travelogue I reminded her of our young lives. We laughed about how we fooled Daddy when we wanted to go to Sun Valley, Idaho, to see where Sonia Heine had made her movies. We let him sleep in the car, after having driven all night, and Mother took over and steered us to Sun Valley.  In those days before air conditioning, traveling in the cool of the night was preferable.

She critiqued my writings and rejoiced when I won an award. She was always ready to go places. She volunteered one year at Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe (a Presbyterian conference center), and shared her experiences. She went on to Abiququi, NM to help out and she felt she was at the end of the world. She and I went hiking in Santa Fe with Elderhostel.  She proved a better hiker. I was there for support. If I didn't go with her to a destination, she went alone. She attended plays in Montgomery AL several years I couldn't accompany her, driving the four hours there and four back alone. One year we saw all the movies up for Academy Awards, a feat difficult for Jackson, Mississippi, where choice movies are often missed. We attended history lectures and drove hours to visit a grave or a cabin or a road mentioned at these lectures. We'd drive out of the way on one of our trips so she could photograph some famous musician, writer, or historian.

                                                      Me and Sis

We made up for lost time in the twenty years we had together. Then the old scourge returned and took her life.  I'm lonesome. I have no place nor anyone with whom to travel. With Sis' death my original family is gone. She is at peace. Wonderful memories sustain me.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Remembering My Parents

I'm in the middle of a biography of my parents. When my parents came to live with me the last five years of their existence, I made one request of them.  Write about your growing up. I handed them a bound note book I thought would entice them to write.  Daddy, hungrily took the book and went to his office, a separate building in the backyard where he repaired clocks. Mother, on the other hand, put her book in the bedroom saying, "I'll think about it."

In a few days Daddy handed in his book, completely filled with a note attached "Addendum 1 in the works."  Daddy not only had florid script, Palmer's best, but a way with words. Sis and I can claim our love of writing came from him.  Today those words ring more true to his identity than they did when he handed me the book and announced, "There, that's the beginning." I will  write his story  soon.

Mother took her time to write. I knew heart strokes erased much of her memory, as her writing covers her youth with her brothers. She dwells a bit about Daddy's family's unacceptance of her.  Her mind couldn't get out of her childhood. I knew direct questioning would be the best tact for her.

Time after time I'd sit with her and ask questions. She couldn't understand why I was surprised at her marrying Daddy after six weeks of dating.  I held back from then on to make light remarks at some of the experiences she enjoyed: early boyfriends, her poor school grades, life in the big city alone.

My first project was about Mother.  I felt I had a better understanding of her after the many talks. Too, she had diaries she kept  from time to time in her married life, the letters she wrote me, and notes of our small talks.  Together with old snapshots I created Mother's life. I felt good with what I'd accomplished.

I shared the fourteen pages with Sis. "That's not at all what I know of Mother! I'd never have written her life that way. You left out Daddy."  I explained I wanted to concentrate on each of them and then their marriage and family.  " I'll write about Daddy later," I explained. I wanted some tidbits she remembered about the woman who raised us, paid for our every need, taught us to be independent. We were early latch-key kids before the term originated.

True, we siblings have different views of our parents. Surely some events are shared more than others. Sis sums up her contribution with, "I wrote about Mother in an essay. Find it and use that. I don't remember like you did."

My trouble with Sis was my approach. I should have sat down and discussed each parent and taken notes.  I didn't. Don't make the mistake of waiting too long to get your sibs to contribute to family stories.  Writing who your parents were and their personalities are components to letting them live in your own children's hearts.

Note: having my parents write in their own handwriting is as precious as ever. In future generations their descendants will admire "the old way" people wrote.  Be sure to leave something in your own handwriting, whether it is a grocery list or a note to you.

Friday, December 18, 2015


I don't count how many years ago Sis and I signed up for hiking around Santa Fe and Abiquiu, New Mexico. We walked three miles daily at the local park and I was about to increase time to three more. Sis made a suggestion one  March morning while the sun was warming us ,"Let's go with Elderhostel's hiking group to Santa Fe."  Hey, I walk daily, I can hit the trails with ease, so I thought. With doctor's approval of my good health we signed up.

I had "the big head," an expression we used to use meaning being overconfident. I anticipated the week-long trip to be adventurous, full of new contacts, exploring the beauty of that part of New Mexico.  But I wasn't prepare for lay ahead.

Being inexperienced kept me back from enjoying the treks, the beauty of reaching new heights, the feeling of accomplishment to make the climb. I made a few trails, some so narrow I refused to look down, some squeezing between rock formations older than I, some climbing over tricky rocks with no room to wiggle. I began one trek when I realized  how arduous the three-hour hike would be. I sat down at the lower end of the trail and waited. The group was composed of very experienced hikers who wondered what a cluck I was to make the trip. Sis did well. I whined the entire time due to my embarrassment over being inexperienced. I had a few hikers helping me with their pats of reassurance that I'd find something good about the trip. 

We spent two days in Santa Fe and three in the distant outpost of Abiquiu.  Our lodging was at Ghost Ranch properties in both places.  While in  Santa Fe we had evening activities to enjoy.The latter three days about the only activity we had was hiking. 

When Saturday arrived, we packed up our cars, hugged everyone and headed home. Before we headed for Mississippi, Sis and I toured four states along the border checking out the Indian sites. Despite being April, we had quite a lot of days of chilly weather.  We arrived home to begin our three mile walking on flat ground at the local park, memories of hiking pushed away in our brains. No more 6,000 ft elevations.
Early Stage of Hike
Entering the Narrows
Climbing Old Indian Ladder

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


My last entry was about my birthday plate (among other things.)  I'm busy writing stories remembering the time of growing up.  I feel ashamed, in one way, that I've spent so much time about myself, but I span 50 decades of changes in daily and world-wide operations. I want readers of the future to know what someone in the "dark ages" felt, thought, and acted.

Today I want to share a common recipe with readers.  If you grew up in a rural area during the Depression or a time when money was less than usual, your mom/granny/auntie/ or that wonderful person who cared for you surely made HOE CAKES.  I put my sample photo on Instagram only to find some similar ones showing a hoe cake dressed up.  I made mine from cornmeal mix and made them thin as were the old-timey ones.

The two best ways to eat these, warm or cold, is to have on hand old fashioned butter like the brand put out by the Amish.  Tastes like the kind my grandmother made when she churned.  She made a lot of these hoe cakes. She put them on top of the wood stove, which held heat, and any time of the day, family could grab one, slather it with cane syrup or use the home made butter.  

For a memory lift I warmed two and poured local-produced cane syrup, dark and thick, over the cakes.  A treat that carried me back to age five.  This is easy to make with a mix.  However:

Hoe cakes, according to dear Mother, were made with plain cornmeal and water.  Nothing added like baking powder results in a flatter cake. She related her job as a pre-schooler of taking lunch to her brothers and the field hands in a metal bucket.  Most ate with nothing added, as utensils weren't handy in the cotton field.  The field hands in the early 1900s had nothing more to eat than that for their evening meal.  At lunch they ate a slab of meat and a couple of hoe cakes and kept working throughout the afternoon.  When we kids were left to our own play, we stopped long enough in the afternoon to snatch a hoe cake, swat it across the butter still sitting on the dinner table, and run to finish our game.  Biscuits from breakfast were available until noon.  Biscuits were big enough for us to punch a hole with our forefinger and fill with syrup.  Umm, makes my mouth water.

The next time you are in a restaurant and hoe cakes are on the menu, chances are the chef has dolled them to resemble a taste of corn bread smothered in seafood, roast beef, onions, and served it for a price that is ridiculous.  Try them yourselves, give them a topping, and show them off at your next meal.

Friday, August 28, 2015


Someone asked me last week “How are you celebrating your birthday?” I said “No special way. No one notices my date except a few close friends, my Sis, and my adult children.”  As I reflected, I thought how important Mother made of Sis and my birthdays.  She even had “Happy Unbirthdays” to celebrate with us. She loved giving us gifts like a bracelet, a book, or a new dress.  She reminded us weekly, if not daily, how much she loved us. Throughout my growing years I wanted a cake baked by Mother to sit on the tiny footed cake plate she bought for me.  It had to be decorated in pink letters made of sugar that said, "Happy Birthday  Vivian."  That plate is still as colorful as when the first cake sat there eighty years ago.

I married a man who rarely remembers dates of any kind. The few times he has and has produced a gift, I’ve been surprised.  Early in our marriage I usually got a flower pot or something worth giving Goodwill. I decided I didn’t need any more flower pots so I insisted he not worry about my special date. Then he began taking me to dinner. That lasted three years.  Here’s a man who, with each of three children born, gave the hospital nurse three different dates for my birthday. We had been married five, six and ten years at the time. The fact that he’s still living and talking to me every day is gift enough.

Sunday I’m turning 83 and I don’t care about a present. I need a hug and a vocal “Happy Birthday, love you”.  I don’t mind if they add, “Old gal.”  I’m excited to be my age and in decent good health.  That is the best gift I could receive.