Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Time for Growth

This week the breezes have quickened. They whisper to the dry leaves still clinging to their familiar stark limbs that it's time to drop so Mom can sleep and bring new birth. The yards painted shades of brown beckon their owners to get out, enjoy the beauty of sunshine and rake those dead soldiers into piles to be burned.

Every day I stand in the kitchen I see through the window the tree across the street with dead leaves unable to shake themselves from the cold limbs. Why, they ask? Look at my neighbors who still are green, why must I die when they stay alive?

And so those friends and relatives with cancer are asking the same questions, why me when others are healthy? I see the new year as a need not to rake their lives into a pile and turn the other way, but to keep some flame of hope burning.

Just like those leaves, I must drop some unproductive aspects of my life and allow growth of my person. I must listen more, talk less. I must find more time for silence. I need to quit stereotyping people. I need to care for those losing hope and life. Needs, Wants, Have-to's--can I achieve these in another year?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Year Ending, Another Beginning

As the New Year advances I'm reminded by how some countries celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next:

AUSTRIA - The suckling pig is the symbol for good luck for the new year. It's served on a table decorated with tiny edible pigs. Dessert often consists of green peppermint ice cream in the shape of a four-leaf clover.

ENGLAND - The British place their fortunes for the coming year in the hands of their first guest. They believe the first visitor of each year should be male and bearing gifts. Traditional gifts are coal for the fire, a loaf for the table and a drink for the master. For good luck, the guest should enter through the front door and leave through the back. Guests who are empty-handed or unwanted are not allowed to enter first.

WALES - At the first toll of midnight, the back door is opened and then shut to release the old year and lock out all of its bad luck. Then at the twelfth stroke of the clock, the front door is opened and the New Year is welcomed with all of its luck.

SICILY - An old Sicilian tradition says good luck will come to those who eat lasagna on New Year's Day, but woe if you dine on macaroni, for any other noodle will bring bad luck.

SPAIN - In Spain, when the clock strikes midnight, the Spanish eat 12 grapes, one with every toll, to bring good luck for the 12 months ahead.

Some of these ideas are interesting enough to observe ourselves: the gifting of the first visitor to the home, dinining on lasagna, eating the grapes. . .well, we have the blackeyed peas for good luck. And we make resolutions. No longer do I create a list, makes me ill-tempered. But for posterity this time, here's my compilation:

I want to

remind my family more often how much I love and respect them,
continue to fight clutter,
dole out more compliments,
hug more,
keep in contact with my generation of cousins and elderly kin,
work with my jewelry like I'm the Grandma Moses of jewelry,
enrich the friendships with those I've formed
pray more dilligently for peace, understanding of those different from ourselves,
continue to support my country and appreciate my freedoms.

As our young family was growing, we celebrated New Year's Eve at Ann and Harry's along with their kids and those of another family. Now those kids are grown up and having their own parties. Later through my school contacts we began meeting with Vivian M who loves people and has the grandest year-end celebrations --and after 20 years we anticipate the wonderful friendships Vivian has introduced us to when December 31 returns. She always starts the new year serving her great biscuits, grits, bacon, and coffee.

And we are reminded that same night that oh so many years ago we welcomed our second son into the world, relieved that he made it before the first of the year. He had the looks of his so-called North American Indian ancestry (my grandmother was supposed to have had an Indian in the family) with his dark hair and olive complexion. His older brother, just turned one, was confused by all the hoop-la. This time I wasn't the frantic new mother begging the nurse to tell me what to do when I got home with the bundle of arms and legs. I had had a year to get ready.

We were fortunate to hire an excellent caretaker to help me and guide wee brother Jim into a routine.The memory of that woman remains, her name is lost. She taught me to reserve time with the toddler, take care of myself, and educated me in the routine of general family life that I needed at that time. She and her husband, a part-time minister, were killed in an automobile accident only a few years later. Thank you, my Caretaker, for your lessons.

Second son celebrates his 45th birthday this Saturday night. His distance away hinders us from celebrating this important event, and there's always a hole in our hearts. As a family we are big on togetherness, communication, and support. Happy Birthday, Scott!

And Happy New Year to all my friends, relatives, and occasional visitors!!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Best Gifts We Can Receive--and Give

This Christmas season, I wish for America the gifts of deliverance, restored memory and renewed vision. She needs a self-esteem boost. ...

I have something to say, and, I have questions for fellow Americans.
America is spinning in self-inflicted ruts. We, her citizens, are bickering among ourselves as if we are of different nations. We are tearing away at our foundation, one tenet after another. We are relaxing our allegiance to God, our Cornerstone. Do we remember American's source of light in dark time, her peacemaker in trouble spots and her deliverer from oppressors? Why are we quiet about the path America once traveled, the authority she once revered and the high moral standards she once held? Lawmakers and culture-shapers are rewriting our family history and.. its.culture...and now debating whether to rename "Merry Christmas" "Winter Break." And we call this progress?

Change can be good or bad. Sometimes it's just different, not better. Someone will always be offended by something, at some time or in some way. That's the life of a diverse populace.

Fellow Americans, we are the "mother of exiles"--the "tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free". In what way and for how long can any politically correct reform fix our diversity?
We need to reflect on our image and behavior. We are looking ugly and sounding like bullies. Sometimes, we are embarrassed and made ashamed, Let's repent and forgive the bad and the ugly....We need deliverance.

The Golden Rule has proven to be our best recourse: "Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you." We can survive our differences and thrive, too, without dissolving the unity part of the United States...
'Tis the season to hear old words of peace and goodwill spoken to our broken spirits and troubled minds.We need to be reminded of some bold landmarks made in this country before the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Americans we need to reflect on our image and behavior. Let's allow truth to reign and give us peace again at home.

The above words were written by my friend Jannie Johnson in a recent column for the local newspaper. She has for decades run a school to teach wayward children the values and the rewards of being good. Her Caring and Sharing classes are held in her family home rich with the heritage of her parents' fight for equal rights among the Blacks in Mississippi. She was the first and only parent to ask me what I was teaching her son in the Spanish language class; the first to visit the class on several occasions; the only parent whose family lived the values they inspire others to achieve. Her School of Preventive Counseling relies on donations to exist. Nevertheless, she continues teaching little children how to be better, to achieve a purpose in life, to get along with their peers. In so doing she teaches their parents responsibility. She never wavers in her beliefs. Her friendship is valuable.

Write me for her address if you wish to donate to her cause at

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

What December Brings

December has proven to be an arduous month for us. We've been home in Mississippi just seven weeks and we've battled temporary amnesia we seem to be plagued with upon our returns each November: where is the shortcut to the airport? Wasn't there on that corner the restaurant we enjoyed last year? When did this road become a detour? Did Frank tell us he was moving? My gingko, taken in liquid form, isn't helping my memory any better than the capsules.

Then there're the decisions to make annually just before January when we want to schedule action: how to improve or upgrade our house. Let's face it folks, despite my boasting of living 4o more years, these decisions may curtail our lives considerably. All we've done these past years is shuffle the same furniture from one spot to the other,adding a few pieces here and there. Now we're ready to redesign our living pattern. And we can't decide which rug of the hundreds we'd like to live with for a decade or so! Decisions about redesigning the bathrooms leave us exhausted, design magazines lying like spilled toothpicks about the room; viewing bed frames on the internet until our eyes bulge; determining how to organize our precious junk-- I tell you, decisions are too much for our psyche!

The best decison came with celebrating our oldest son's birthday. He was born six days before Christmas. As the practice of overgifting on Christmas was not our choice, birthdays were and still are The Gift Giving Time. So despite his adult status, it was fun selecting his gifts and watching him enjoy the surprises as we've done in the past.

For a few years in his early teens, Jim always wanted a cheesecake for his special day. But only the cheesecake from the delicatessen of his choice. On one prior day to December 19 I made the purchase, took it home and placed it on the kitchen bar while I hung up my coat in the closet. Never did I think that Freckles would give Jim the worst gift. In the passing of two minutes, our Dalmatian couldn't resist the creamy cake in the box. He just swallowed it in a few gulps, leaving us with an empty carton.

We still laugh at that memory, and mourn the passing of this beautiful pet years later.

Then, unexpectedly, the shadow of disease darkens our doorway. My sister, living with us for a short time, receives the dreaded word that she has cancer. Just when we'd worked out a road map for her retirement. Helping her through two surgeries and impending chemo reminds us how precious life is and how easily cancer or another disease can redirect our lives. Richard and I have felt close to this disease with our friend Ed and my cousin Bobby and a number of other known friends and family battling for a few more years of life, feeling overcome by their fragility. Another cousin knows she has the disease but has chosen not to have any treatment, to enjoy the remainder of her life having a good time traveling and enjoying what is dealt. She plans to retire in nine more years. Perhaps she has the right attitude instead of putting those toxic chemicals into her body, reducing her to a wisp of a person, she's enjoying time she may never have again.

Our role as caretakers continue. First were the parents on both sides, now my only sister. I'll just dust off our cheerleader uniforms, pull out the pom-poms and practice the cheers.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Remembering the Season

Governor and Mrs. Haley Barbour sent this card to citizens with the statement inside, "God bless Mississippi and the wonderful people who make her great". They are standing in front of a yard on the Gulf Coast with only the statue of Mary still intact. A poignant moment captured to be remembered at this holy time of the year. The Bible verse quoted from Jeremiah states, "There is hope for your future, says the Lord, your children will come again to their own land." Take a moment to think or pray for those ravaged by the hurricanes who feel only bleakness in their lives.

I don't begrudge those who wish to say "Happy Holidays" or any other secular greeting. Those who consider this time in December as commemoration of Jesus' birth easily greet with "Merry Christmas", leaving others to use their own means of wishing happiness. It's not the words we use but how we use them and the tone of voice. We Southerners greet strangers easily with a "Good morning" or a "Hello" at motels, restaurants, on the street and always follow with "Thank you" after a favor is done. A greeting communicates caring.

Our tiny tree now sparkles with colored lights and six white dove sit precariously on the limbs. Digging into the few small boxes of ornaments passed from year to year, I'm reminded of the many years between Thanksgiving and December 19 (usually the last day of school) our three kids would make their own ornaments for the tree: painting wooden figures and making paper chains. It was fun also making gifts for neighbors, teachers, and their closest friends. Soon the idea of pasting pictures on soap with wax or hand drawing a picture or making their own greeting cards became passe, and only bought items would do.

One season when daughter Janie was in the third grade, she had decided not to give her teacher a gift, only to change her mind on the evening of the 18th. Because she had decided late in the evening I was quite distraught, needing to prepare for my last day of classes. We traipsed to a department store looking at all the possible gifts. Of course my ideas didn't agree with hers, so I gave her a hard sell. "Look at this scarf, see the way the flowers are arranged at each end? Anyone knowing this artist will appreciate this as a gift. Vera is a well-known designer. One of her scarves is a real gift." Janie had to muse over what I said as she gazed around the ladies' department, finally settling on a Vera scarf with some reluctance. Taking the selection home she wrapped the box her way and never spoke to me again about that gift. That was in 1971.

Several years ago I was in the local library chatting with some friends when that third grade teacher of three decades ago walked in. She asked about Janie and I proudly told her Janie's accomplishments. Putting her hand on my arm, she said, "I'll never forget that Christmas when Janie walked up to my desk and presented me with her gift. As I opened it, she said, 'That's a Vera scarf; anyone is happy to wear something of hers, she's a famous designer.' You know, I've still got that scarf and I've never forgotten those words of hers!"

Ironic as it was, three summers ago at our Kudzu Food and Goods Scott had purchased some Vera collectible napkins. I was pleased to learn more of this talented woman. Then one day a visitor who became a customer mentioned that he collected scarves and hoped to write a biography of her. During that same summer I picked up a budget decorating magazine and found an article about how a young man utilized his collection of her scarves: framing and hanging on his living room wall. They were just as beautiful as when they were originally designed.

What goes around comes around--just like this season. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

'Tis the Season

With a distinct chill in the air, the Christmas season has tumbled into Mississippi. My neighbors are busy decorating their yards and homes. Lights, I have to admit, at this time of the year twinkling from a tree or a porch or a door make me feel like a child of wonder again. Our tradition is to drive into other neighborhoods on Christmas Eve before dinner to see the feast of lights. We "ooh" and "ahh" like the children we are inside. There are many grown children who've never tired of twinkling lights and amazing life-like toy animal and human forms that bob and sway to canned carols and popular songs. They are the ones who continue the tradition of decorating for the delight of little ones peering through foggy automobile windows on frosty nights.

In our home there are no small children to celebrate with us, so we decorate minimally. I do enjoy having poincettias in various rooms throughout the house, shouting "Merry Christmas!" Like the two seen here. The reds are my favorites, more traditional; but this year I added the white and the pale red ones. Horticulture has changed the flower from its original form.

One season, many years ago, I arranged a trip to Mexico, for my students of Spanish. We boarded a bus Christmas Day afternoon and arrived 24 hours later in Monterrey. One of our side trips took us into a small village where to our surprise we saw a wall of an old house glistening in the morning sunlight Upon closer look we recognized the red leaves on a vine as our potted poincettias--our first to see it in its original growing form. An impressive scene.

Years later I bravely took another group during the season to Mexico City and to their delight the students celebrated the season twice. Most celebrations in Mexico and Latin America begin religiously in early December, attending church at midnight of the 25th. Then the real time for children begins. Anticipation rises over the approaching visit by the Three Wise Men. In the park our students saw three men dressed in long garments meandering from one child to another. They, as our Santa Claus, were listening to the children's wishes for giftsto be delivered on January 6. The park was decorated with play houses painted in bright colors depicting those in fairy tales. Commercial and retail establishments displayed in their storefronts the traditional layout of the town of Bethlehem with minature houses, animals, trees, roadways. At the top of a hill was the manger scene. Homes also decorate in this theme, adding to the town each year. Sometimes these layouts extend into many rooms .

I'm reminded by former student, Stella, who went on this trip, that at reunions of her high school class everyone says the Mexico trip was their most memorable.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Madison, My Madison

Despite the low wages Mississippians earn, there are perks in our state that many others don't have. One is lower property taxes for senior citizens. Those over 65 pay approximately one-half of the taxes levied. We have medical clinics, good public schools, a growing library. Our town is a designated retirement site. It also is an architecturally planned "city" and the efforts of our female mayor is paying off as the city progresses. We don't have a main street leading into downtown that is lined with fast food structures or used auto dealerships. Located a few miles north of the capital city, Madison is THE place for families. No apartment buildings strewn in the once cotton fields, no low-cost housing , no abominable condos reaching to the clouds, and right now a low-to-nothing crime rate .

Madison is developing into a lovely area, if you like progress that brings in traffic, an overload of businesses in form of upscale restaurants, movie theaters, dozens of fast food eateries (conveniently place in proper locations), strip malls--all designed with architectural guidelines set many years ago. We were the first city to force Wal Mart to conform to the guidelines (took them over 4 years to agree to build to the city's standards). The exit off I55 into Madison is the only one in the state that is beautifully laid in brick instead of just concrete walls(and you can believe many folks griped to the newspapers about the Highway Department affording this move). New homes are sprouting on either side of I55 and State Highway 51.

I'm proud of the progress of this place, which 40 years ago when we moved here was a tiny spot on the state map. It's the hurly-burly of this place (or any place that has progressed in size) that makes me enjoy Sullivan County, NY in the summer months.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

In the News

Mississippi has made the front pages in many newspapers in the last few months. The New York Times compared the state with Louisiana to energize Katrina rescue efforts. Big layout then. However, the latest articles concerned a good and a bad compliment: Mississippi is the highest in charitable giving and the lowest in household income. My, oh, my. We've suffered from an inferiority complex too many years.

We are charitable. I'm proud to say that schools and organizations in various directions of the state have continued to help Katrina victims. The local colleges and universities have each adopted a city along the Gulf Coast and the efforts of their students will have a tremendous impact. Local residents have formed their own helping hands groups and administer directly with families, churches, libraries, rather than push contributions to larger organizations like Salvation Army or Red Cross. Local restaurants are holding special entertainment with specific groups in mind. One this Saturday night will help the Walter Anderson Family in their restoration of valuable art work that was supposedly safe in another part of the Coast, but suffered water damage.

When on Peaks Island, Maine we attended a Katrina Fund Raiser and this tiny island of 1,000 year 'round residents raised $15,000 in one day. They didn't spend a lot of up front money to have this, most everything was donated. Through the efforts of my daughter she was able to convince the Fund Raiser Committee to send $1,000 to a library in Long Beach, MS that had lost everything. She remains in contact with the librarian who appreciates her efforts to have a book drive to help stock the make-shift library. So much to be done. This doesn't begin to relate the needs there.

As to having the lowest median income in the nation (Connecticut has the highest), we still manage to produce greats in art, music, literature, and sports. Someone recently reminded me that we have produced more sports greats than any other state.

Now a local advertising agency has taken on the responsibility of opening a website to "inform and educate the citizens of Mississippi, as well as interested parties across the U.S., about the wonderful people, aspects and facts associated with the state..." There will be public service announcements for print publications and posters sent to all schools, public and private.
Their campaign is "Mississippi, Believe It!" (see About Mississippi in the link). Everyone recognizes that Oprah, Willie Morris, Brett Farve, B.B. King, and Faith Hill are among recognizable people originally from Mississippi. And don't forget ME-- your humble scribe.