Friday, November 2, 2012
Anita, Meredith, Mary Beth
In our very large extended family, cousins abounded. Mama had three siblings and Daddy had seven, so we had more cousins than we could count. While most of my cousins were much older than I, we have still stayed connected through the years, at least on some occasional level. But there are a few cousins I see somewhat regularly, and we never seem to run out of things to talk about.
My sister and I had the opportunity recently to visit briefly with the two daughters of one of our cousins, now deceased. And this week, we had the privilege of hanging out with a couple of our other favorite cousins. Meredith, who lives in Oregon, was in Texas for some family events and not only made the time, but rented a car and drove over 300 miles to spend some quality time with us. We included Anita, who traveled a mere 120 miles to make it a foursome. And my sister came straight out of cataract surgery to be part of the fun.
The four of us spent about six hours, talking nonstop and laughing abundantly. Much of what we discussed revolved around childhood memories of family times together. You see, all of our dads were brothers, and even though distance sometimes separated them, they were inseparable at heart. Some of what we marveled about was how well the siblings all got along together; they and their spouses genuinely enjoyed spending time together, and made every opportunity to do so. My sister and I were fortunate to live within 30 miles of three of our uncles, and those four families regularly got together for Sunday dinner, backyard cookouts, and swapping stories. And swap stories they did!
One of my favorite memories was when the brothers told stories ~ and they and their sister were ALL master storytellers. A typical gathering would go like this ~
Sunday morning: my mother puts a roast in the oven, and we all leave for church. After church, we rush home and while Mama finishes the meal preparation, we all go into “help” mode and put a leaf in the table, set out silverware and plates, fill glasses with ice for the tea, and in minutes the door opens and in walks an uncle and aunt and two cousins.
Our small house is immediately filled with talking, laughter, and teasing, along with exclamations of how good the food smells. My aunt brings in her contribution to the meal: a coconut pie with homemade pie crust. Right away, we all gather in the tiny kitchen, which somehow has room for a table and enough chairs around it to seat 8 people! Daddy asks his brother to give thanks for the food, then we all begin helping ourselves to the bounty. The conversation flows back and forth, including exclamations about the delicious meal. Mama jumps up to refill tea glasses or get more homemade rolls from the oven. Finally, everyone is finished eating—but wait, there’s more! We all stack our plates and pass them to the person closest to the kitchen sink while Mama slices my aunt’s pie and the chocolate cake she made, and everyone makes their choice. My sister and I pass the dessert plates around the table while Daddy gets the tea pitcher and passes it around one more time. Despite the fact that no one was really still hungry after the main meal, we dive into the dessert with great gusto, amidst groans of “I am so stuffed!” But we eat it anyway and make appropriate comments to the two great cooks in our midst.
As the dessert is finished, the real fun begins. Everyone pushes back a bit, and the stories begin to flow. Dad and his brothers do not tell their reminiscences with “Remember the time we . . .” but rather start their stories as if it is the first recounting.
“There was an old man who lived south of town, and one day he . . .”
“One time, Clyde was carrying the mail out on the route, and we had this big snow storm one day and . . .”
“Oran was always nervous—just scared of his shadow—and one night he . . .”
Those are the stories that make the rounds.
You can always tell when an epic tale is about to begin. We have each heard the story multiple times in our lifetime, so we know the punch line, we know almost word-for-word what is coming—and yet we all listen intently, waiting for the clincher, ready with the laughter and comments as the story unfolds. Each of the brothers leans back and laughs, enjoying the tale as if for the first time—and as a child, so do I. Even though we are sitting in a cramped kitchen, near a sink piled with dirty dishes, no one seems in a hurry to leave. Even we youngsters don’t jump up immediately to go play. We wait for the stories to develop, hanging on every word, laughing at all the right places and watching with delight as our parents regale themselves with memories of growing up in the first half of the 20th Century.
Eventually, the men get up from the table and move into the living room to continue their conversation. The two wives wash and dry the dishes, having a sister-in-law moment to talk about the recipe for the cake, what the girls are doing in school, and where they found the material for the cute curtains in the kitchen window. We four girls leave the table and head for the back of the house. I don’t usually have a cousin my own age around, so I am forced to tag along with my sister and the older cousins, but they are usually willing to include me. We talk or play for two or three hours until time for the relatives to go home, and we all hug goodbye and they leave to drive back home before Sunday night church.
By today’s social standards, it sounds boring and lame. But as we four cousins talked this week, these were the times we all remembered with such fondness. We all treasure those times with family ~ listening to stories, relishing meals together, teasing one another, and lots of laughter. We were creating memories out of the everyday stuff of life, and all of us marveled at the power of those very simple times we shared.
Today, I am grateful for my cousins. My parents and all of the aunts and uncles are gone now. But they would be so pleased to know that their children still love each other and enjoy being together ~ not only telling their own stories, but recapping the ones they learned long ago.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
In a previous blog, I described memories of my Grandmother Martin. Recently, when reading an excerpt from Richard Foster’s Freedom of Simplicity, I was reminded again of the simple life my grandmother lived. Yet in that simplicity, there was profound meaning, joy, and peace. The world we live in could use more of that.
One example of Grandmother’s simplicity was how she entertained the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who came to visit. She had a wooden footstool with an upholstered hinged lid, and a storage space inside the footstool. It only measured 15” by 15”, but it held a few basic items that all the youngsters who came to visit played with contentedly, sometimes for hours.
An empty wooden spool for thread, an aluminum teacup, a baseball, a ball and jacks set, some scattered marbles . . . those were some of the toys we found inside. The stool was on wheels, so it was moved to different places in the living room of Grandmother’s tiny house—but each child who walked through her front door instinctively knew where to find it, and would be drawn to it like an invisible magnet.
I remember crouching down on the linoleum floor, lifting the creaky lid, and finding all the familiar, modest toys inside—“playthings” or “play-pretties” as Grandmother called them. I would pull them out, one by one, and enter into imaginative play while the adults talked. Sometimes, there would be a new item inside the stool—a yo-yo or a top, or some other small trinket. But always, there were jacks and marbles because those were prized toys to children in earlier generations, and Grandmother knew they would be a hit.
On occasions when I stayed overnight with Grandmother, I was entertained by other simple joys. She had an old stereograph and a series of photo slides that I would sit and gaze through for hours. They were a precursor to the Viewmaster pictures, and perhaps the ancestor to Powerpoint presentations or iPad slideshows.
Young folks today enjoy handheld video games, and other games on iPods and iPads. Grandmother entertained me with a game of dominoes or a trip outside to the well-house in the back yard, where I would hold the fuzzy yellow baby chicks she raised. We picked up pecans under the huge trees in her yard, or harvested fruit and berries in her garden. Often we sat, looking at old photo albums, with her telling me about the people in the long-ago photos, recalling stories from her past.
Grandmother never owned a television, but read books instead. She didn’t own a car and had never learned to drive, preferring to walk wherever she needed to go. An unpretentious life, filled with simple joys and pleasures.
“Sure, but it was another time and place, and that’s not realistic or even possible in the 21st Century.” Really? I believe we can still find ways to simplify our lives and establish priorities based on the things we value most. If we truly desire a simpler life, there are ways we can be intentional about achieving the balanced life we want. Do you crave a simpler life too?
Monday, July 23, 2012
I suppose everyone has heard the expression, “one foot in the grave”, meaning not long for this world. We are all here on earth for a very short time, and death eventually comes to everyone. But at the risk of seeming irreverent, I just have to share what happened to me a couple of weeks ago that gave new meaning to this phrase. I have told the story to a few people, and one particular friend said, “You HAVE to write that in your blog.” Perhaps she is right; everyone needs a good laugh now and then, even at the expense of someone else.
It started innocently enough. I have been working on a cataloging project in my community, capturing information at the local cemetery in order to have a searchable database and visual plotting of all those buried there. This is a spare time project, so I often spontaneously decide to drive out to the cemetery to do my work, without anyone else being aware of my coming and going. This particular evening, I arrived about an hour before sundown, and began walking down one row after another. As I prepared to take a digital photo of one of the headstones, I stepped in front of it and crouched to get a close-up shot. Before I knew what was about to happen, my left leg sank suddenly and swiftly into the dirt-covered grave, all the way up to my knee!
Of course, the first fleeting thought I had was, “How far down does this thing go?” I have stood by many graves at this very cemetery, aware of the large gaping hole hidden underneath the velvet-draped casket. And I have even watched the caskets lowered into the ground, but I had no concept of the depth of those holes.
My second spontaneous thought was, “It’s almost dark and no one knows I am out here.” That thought was interwoven with all the stories and impressions people have about cemeteries and the dead bodies who are buried there. Of course, those were thoughts that flashed through my mind within probably the first 2 seconds. By then, I was already instinctively flying back out of the grave the same way I went in!
Now, under ordinary circumstances, I don’t move really fast. I have had arthritic knees since I was in college, so my movements are not usually swift ones. But on that particular evening, I most likely set a record for how fast one can fall into a hole with one foot and get back out on solid ground. My quick ejection also served to get my heart rate up to an optimum level.
After the initial panic wore off, I began to see the humor in the situation. The grave was, coincidentally, a fairly new one—the father of one of my high school classmates. I pondered: do I email her and say, “Hey, I just dropped in on your dad yesterday”? Nope; too insensitive. Should I tell people I have grave concerns? Perhaps I hum to myself that old hymn, “Low in the grave he lay” . . . naw, that’s too irreverent. Maybe I tell folks I had a sinking feeling about the cemetery project . . .
Okay, I’m finished with the bad puns. And I will be certain not to “fall” for any more misrepresented graves—from now on, the plots have to be on solid ground before I take another step.
Judy Martin Bowyer
Copyright © 2012
Sunday, June 24, 2012
After years of wishing someone would capture some of my dad's family stories and preserve them for future generations, I finally decided that if no one else was willing, I would give it a shot. So I have promised some of my cousins that I will attempt to write the memories I have of my grandmother, as well as my dad and his sister and brothers. This story comes from my first efforts on this project, and I thought by sharing it, perhaps you will realize the value of making precious memories with your own children or grandchildren. And to all my cousins who read it, this is a sample of how I am approaching the venture. Who knows, maybe it will inspire each of you to write things YOU remember from your own childhood? Happy memories, and full speed ahead! jb
My grandmother was a little sprite of a woman, but she turned ordinary days into adventures. I vividly recall one specific time when I spent a summer night at her house when I was about eight years old.
Although Grandmother only lived about eight blocks away, I packed my little bag with all the things I would need on my overnight journey. Mama took me to her house in the early evening, and I shared a simple meal with her at the kitchen table. After cleaning up our dishes, we went into the tiny living room and got out the box of Dominoes.
Grandmother didn’t just play “token” games to keep me occupied until bedtime. She enjoyed playing, and it was a lively, enthusiastic competition. And of course, we always talked while we played. She was a great conversationalist. Sometimes, she simply spoke of ordinary things in the community, or about family members and what they were doing. At other times, the conversation took a different turn.
My grandmother never owned a television set, but she loved to read. In fact, she read voraciously, and knew something about a wide variety of subjects. So her conversation might include some interesting tidbit of information she had read about. And, of course, she read her Bible daily, so she wove things she had read into the discussion.
Around 10:00 o’clock, she declared it to be bedtime, and while I put on my pajamas and brushed my teeth, she changed into a long gown and took down her hair. Grandmother was probably barely five feet tall, if even that. Her white hair, when loose, hung most of the way down her back, maybe almost waist length. During the day, she wore it twisted into a bun. But at night, she took it down and let it fall loose.
We turned out the light and both climbed into the double-sized feather bed in the front bedroom. It always felt safe, lying next to my grandmother in the dark, listening to an occasional car drive past down Main Street.
At first light the next morning, Grandmother was out of bed, and I sleepily followed. We pulled on our clothes and headed for the kitchen. I don’t remember what she made for breakfast, but it was probably very nutritious, since she was a health nut long before it was fashionable to be one. Grandmother would pore through health journals, and researched the latest findings ‘way before we had the internet. She had discovered the merits of soy milk before anyone around us even knew it existed, and she purchased it by mailorder.
Once breakfast was prepared, we took it outside to eat. That, in itself, was an adventure for me, since at my house we never ate outside unless it was a cookout. But Grandmother dearly loved the outdoor life. She spent most of her waking hours working in her garden, so she was quite at home eating breakfast in the backyard! We took our morning meal into the screened-in garden room in her backyard.
Here, I must digress to explain this building. Because Grandmother was a “can-do” kind of woman, we never knew what construction project she might have underway when we went to visit. I remember with amazement that sometimes I would walk into her house and discover that she had knocked out a wall and reconfigured some room in her tiny home. By way of explanation, she was widowed at a young age. And she was, after all, a pioneer woman who had traveled by covered wagon to new territory, lived in a dugout, raised eight children on the West Texas prairie, and had likely even helped her husband build their home east of Petersburg. So yes, I’m sure she had learned many skills and was not afraid to try something new.
At any rate, Grandmother was not afraid to tackle new projects, and as far as I know, she completed them single-handedly. At this point in the story, she was eighty-five years old, and had built an outdoor screened-in garden room, for lack of a better description. Sure, it was crudely built with scraps of this and that. She had basically built a wooden frame, nailed screening to the framing boards all around, and had installed an old screen door at the entrance. I can’t remember for sure, but it seems like it had a covering of some kind.
She had an assortment of plants inside. There was a bench-type table with chairs, so that was where we took our breakfast on this particular day. The morning was cool and fresh; birds sang, and a slight breeze sifted through the screens, ruffling my short brown hair. Grandmother had already secured hers in a bun. It wasn’t a stylish gesture for her, but purely practical so that she could work in her yard during the windy days with ease.
On this particular morning, we had carried our breakfast out to the garden room, and it seemed magical to be sitting outside, eating an ordinary breakfast in an extraordinary fashion.
I remember thinking, “This is so much fun. I don’t know why we don’t do this all the time at home?” Of course, that is the beauty of being with grandparents; you get to do things you would not always get to do at home!
Sometime around mid-morning, my mother came to retrieve me, and it was time to go back to my own routines.
A simple memory of a seemingly uneventful sleepover—much like others I had experienced at Grandmother’s house. But the time spent must have been engraved on my heart more than fifty years ago, because the imprint of those precious details is still sharp and vivid in my memory today.
Judy Martin Bowyer
Saturday, June 16, 2012
West Texas has experienced such a drought in the past couple of seasons that the color brown has become familiar to us all. But the skies have opened over our land in the last ten days, bringing much-needed moisture. I woke early one recent morning to claps of thunder and the precious sound of rain hitting the windowpanes. Farmers and ranchers in this part of the country will be grateful for the life-giving moisture. My own yard is a testimony to what happens when there is rain and when there is none.
Just two weeks ago, I purchased some herbs to plant, but by the time I was able to get them in the ground, the sage plant was looking withered. I planted it anyway, and have continued to give it daily drinks of water. After the recent rains, I went out to assess the state of my little herb garden. Lo and behold, there was a green sprig shooting up from the area where I planted the sage. It could be a weed—it’s too early to tell—but I’m trusting that it is, indeed, the sage coming back to life.
The rain blessing reminds me of a universal truth: for things to grow, they need nourishment. The word “nourish” comes from a Latin word that means “to feed.” Not surprisingly, the word “nurture” comes from the same root word.
As I anticipate the growing things in my backyard that are, right this minute, being nourished, what of my relationships? Are they being nourished? Several examples come to my mind of people I know who have flourished under a bit of extra attention.
When I was a child, my friends and I loved to play on the swing set, pumping our legs furiously to go as terrifyingly high as possible. But once we achieved the maximum speed and height, we stopped pumping and coasted, letting the swing wind down from its momentum. We called it “letting the cat die” (with apologies to all my favorite kitties). Without some effort to keep it in motion, the swing would finally glide to a stop. It is easier sometimes to let relationships coast, assuming they will keep swinging even when we stop putting forth effort.
So today, just as the life-giving rain is nourishing our land, I want to be mindful of some relationships in my life that could use a drink of water, too. If you and I make the effort to pour out some nurturing on people we know, the results will almost certainly be fruitful. We all thrive with attention and care. Why not shower somebody today with a little nurturing? You might bring some wilted, starving relationships back to life.