My Ancestral Home

Photo by Stijn Dijkstra on

A high school friend posted a series of photographs taken on a recent trip to Arkansas with her sister. They spent their time in Hot Springs, Eureka Springs and the surrounding area. Fall was lovely and colorful there. Best of all were her magnificent pictures of the birds that she discovered in the places she visited. I found myself thinking of my Grandma Minnie Bell and my grandfather, John William Seth Smith, who both once lived there as I gazed at the lovely scenes.

Grandma especially loved the birds that shared the fields and the trees near her home. She knew them by their colors and their songs. She understood the ways that they communicated with one another and often joined in the conversations by making warbling and singing noises. They came to her as though they understood that they had nothing to fear from her. She talked to them and stood silently observing them, noting their habits. Watching her engage with them was magical. 

Grandma loved the northwestern part of Arkansas. It’s where her mother, father and grandmother spent their last years on this earth. All of them are buried either in churchyard cemeteries or out in what is now a national forest. I imagine that my grandfather particularly found solace in the slow and easy tempo of the place after fighting in some terrible battles during the Civil War. 

My grandmother told me how terribly affected her father was by the war between states. He suffered from many ailments associated with the privations and horrific environments of war. They left him wanting to live a quiet life away from the conflicts that humans seem to create. He earned a special pension from the government given to veterans of the war who were left with chronic injuries and diseases. I have the documentation that my great grandmother saved among the family papers and then passed down to my Grandma Minnie Bell.

Grandma was unable to read the official declarations but she knew that they were as important as her father’s mustering certificates. She presented them to me when I was still a young girl. She asked my mother to care for them until I was old enough to appreciate their importance. I’m not certain why she chose me for such an honor given that she had dozens of grandchildren, but I have tried to be worthy of her trust. My mother impressed their significance on me and urged me to treat them with great care, and so I have for all of my life. 

Grandma also gave me a tall water pitcher that had belonged to her mother, my great grandmother, Christina.  It is made of crockery and festooned with paintings of roses. I imagine that it was once a prized possession. It is very old now and I constantly worry that it will crack or break. I have cared for it for over fifty years, cherishing it a bit more with the passing of time. My mother kept it in fine shape before me until she believed that I was old enough to appreciate its significance. 

I like traveling to the area of Arkansas where my ancestors once lived. I feel their spirit in those places, especially once I have left the main highways and wander along pathways that lead me away from the noise of civilization. I enjoy walks under the canopy of trees where the only sound is the wind rustling the leaves. I listen for the birds calling to one another and tiny creatures scurrying through the underbrush. That is when I sense that my long ago family is nearby. I feel their caress in the breezes across my face. 

I have yet to find the actual place where my great grandfather and great great grandmother are buried, but I am certain that I have been close. I felt in the woods where their tombstones are suppose to be. I was alone with only nature as my companion because I had left my husband behind as I scurried into the forest the way I had so eagerly done when I accompanied my grandmother on long hikes in the hills behind her farm. I have seen few places so lovely in all of my travels, mostly because Grandma showed me how to find beauty in the commonplace. 

My friend who shared the photos of her trip seems to have the same kind of abilities that my grandmother possessed. She captures the essence of northwestern Arkansas, the colors, the magnificence, the beauty. Her pictures tell a story just like Grandma’s words once did for me. 

I was planning a trip to Mt. Nebo last spring that I had to cancel when my father-in-law and his wife became so ill. He is doing so much better now that I feel confident that I may be able to travel there in the coming year. I plan to return to places where my ancestors walked. I like feeling so close to them and understanding how much they are part of who I am. Arkansas is somehow in my DNA. My friends photo’s reminded me that it’s time to go back again. 


The Best and the Worst Idea

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on

It was the best of ideas. It was the worst of ideas. Social media is one of the modern day conundrums. It’s difficult to decide is it has revolutionized the way we communicate in a positive way or if it has weakened relationships and institutions. The good, the bad and the ugly of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tik Tok will be fodder for discussions in Congress, universities and around kitchen tables for decades. In the present we are only beginning to understand its power and how best to use it. 

Years ago I heard about students posting photos and communicating on MySpace. Parents would complain about their youngsters staying up half the night almost hypnotized by the new way of being part of a vast group. We teachers would suggest taking the phone away by a certain time of the evening and keeping it until morning so that the students might do their homework and get a good night’s sleep. The lure of social media seemed to be an attraction that only teens enjoyed. Most adults knew very little about it.

Then along came Facebook and a worldwide phenomenon of posting photos and comments and finding friends who had seemingly been absent for years. I was somewhat late in joining, but eventually decided to use it as a way of advertising my blog with friends and members of my family. I enjoyed seeing photos and hearing about trips, new jobs, sporting events, celebrations. It was amiable enough that I saw little reason to be wary. I joined in the act of collecting friends and sharing my own joyful times. 

Before long I heard whispers of a dark side of Facebook. Some people used it to taunt others. Some used it in nefarious schemes to bilk innocents out of their money. Political discussions that had once been amiable even when people differed in beliefs became more intense. We saw fewer of our friends on our walls and more and more advertisements and propaganda. Still, the bad  seemed to be balanced by reuniting with friends, keeping track of how everyone was doing. It all seemed harmless enough. 

Then came the Covid pandemic and it felt as though everyone I knew, including myself, picked a side. Some of us cautiously stayed home while watching many of our friends and family members tempting fate by continuing to gather in large groups. It was often difficult to know who had chosen more wisely. We should have just been content with our own decisions, but politics entered the scene making it feel uncomfortable to have any particular belief. “Unfriending” became a kind of blood sport and it always felt horrific whenever it happened. 

I lost people that I loved because of comments that I made on Facebook. Even when I contacted them later to apologize for any way in which my words had hurt them, it seemed to be too late. They were gone from me and that was that. The ugly side of Facebook is that a single sentence can be misunderstood and destroy what had seemed to be a lifetime relationship. 

I’m still on Facebook, but not nearly as often as I once was. I post my Wordle results each morning and wish a Happy Birthday to those who have gone another year around the sun. I enjoy the photos of babies, children and teens. I love hearing about successes. I pray for those who are sick and mourn for those who have died. I like to save the recipes that my friends post and vicariously enjoy their vacations. I give them notice of my blog. I avoid political comments like the plague, often hiding those of others lest I join the discussion. I’ve learned my lesson. I no longer ask questions because they seem to be the very thing that moves people to shun me. 

I was raised by my mother to be the child who questions everything. She encouraged me and my brothers to ponder ideas and seek explanations. Our family has quite lively discussions about everything whenever we meet. Nobody gets their feelings hurt. It’s just part of our quest to hear different points of view. Philosophically we run the gamut of ideas and it’s okay. We have never tried to push anyone into a box. Sadly, I learned on social media that many others are unlike me and my brothers. They become offended when I disagree with them. I have come to realize that we don’t all enjoy a lively discussion and that’s alright. I respect their wishes.

I still have great friends. They let me be me and I let them be them. They may think I’m out of my mind, but they still love me. These days if I want to discuss my ideas I go to Twitter. It’s great there because I can literally follow those who are interesting to me and block anyone who insists on spewing phenom. None of my friends and relatives are part of the group with whom I regularly communicate. They are simply well versed people who are experts in their fields. It’s like belonging to a salon of thinkers where I constantly learn new things. Only once in a great while does a troll creep in to argue with us, but they are easily discouraged. 

Social media is good for me these days. I’m still incredibly sad that I actually lost some dear friends. I am not giving up on winning them back. They are too precious for me to simply walk away. I want more than anything to renew our friendships while I am more careful about how I say things. People and their feelings have always been my top priority and always will be. It really is okay if our ideas don’t mesh. Variety is the spice of life. If we were all alike it will be very dull indeed. Hopefully one day, if I am patient, they will feel comfortable enough to come back.

I Do Blinds, But I Don’t Like It!

Photo by Noelle Otto on

My mother taught me how to clean a house from an early age. I remember learning the proper method for dusting the furniture when I was about five. By the time I was eight I had advanced to cleaning blinds and baseboards. By ten I had become expert in the skill of making a toilet shine like it was brand new. I also did the dishes by hand three to four times a week and kept my bedroom in tidy order along with helping to wash and dry and fold the laundry. 

Back then most things were done the old fashioned way. We did not have a dishwasher nor did we always use the dryer. Quite often we let Mother Nature take care of that job aided by a clothesline in the backyard. Our chores were as well enforced by our mother as if we had been in the military and she was a strict inspector. This was especially true when it came to the toilet. 

I never felt that I had the hardest jobs in the family because my brothers were tasked with cutting the grass from spring until the first freeze. The implement for doing this was a push mower whose power came from their own energy and muscle. It would take them hours in the scorching Texas heat to get the job done in a yard that had a bit of an elevated slope. Somehow I knew that I never wanted to have to take on that task, so I did not complain about the one’s I had.

I’ve never had a maid to help me with housework. Somehow I have just followed my childhood routine of cleaning every Saturday morning right up to this very day. I did not occur to me to hire someone to take on those duties because they have always been second nature to me. I even did the yard work at our home for many years when I was a young wife because my mother-in-law had warned me that my husband was very allergic to grass and pollens in the outdoors and might get very sick if I asked him to do those things. 

It was quite some time before I realized that my man never got sick when we went camping outdoors and I wondered if he had outgrown his hay fever. I put him to work on the lawn and he did just fine. It was a relief not to have to take care of that weekly problem anymore. Our shared duties worked well until one day the lawn mower broke down and I suggested that we hire someone to do the work until we decided what kind of machine to purchase. The yard men did such a remarkable job for a great price that we never again cut even a single blade of grass. To this day those men are two of my favorite people on planet earth as they faithfully arrive each Saturday to keep our landscape look magnificent. 

I have been doing what I call heavy duty cleaning for the last few weeks. I wash the blinds at least twice a year, sometimes quarterly when my life is going smoothly. I really do understand the phrase, “I don’t do windows or blinds” because it is a time consuming and boring task that few people ever really notice. The act of running a wet cloth over each slat is so mind numbing that I attempted to pull a Tom Sawyer and convince my husband that he might enjoy joining me for the ritual. Sadly, he did not take the bait and worked on a few outside repairs instead. So I dream of finding someone with the work ethic of my yard guys who would be willing to come do my blinds without charging me an arm and a leg. 

My husband grew up in a different world from mine. Both his mother and his grandmother always had maids. I remember thinking that I had never heard of such a thing when I first met him. Seeing the plenty of his refrigerator was another shock, followed by the realization that he was free to consume anything he found inside whenever her wished. 

We definitely had to adjust to our differing lifestyles. Luckily my skills came in quite handy because we were both students for the first few years and lived on an income that almost qualified us for government help. I knew exactly how to make the money stretch like a strong rubber band. I also was a whiz at cooking, cleaning and repairing things. He caught on quite well and we’ve been a team ever since. 

Over the years I’ve improved my equipment. I have a robotic vacuum cleaner that keeps my floors spotless. It’s programmed to make a pass in different rooms of the house five days a week. We give the poor fellow two days off on the weekend. I’ve got a fabulous washer and dryer that are actually inside the house instead of being in the garage like those things mostly were back when I was growing up. I have a dishwasher that is so quiet I have to look for a red light to determine if it is actually working. I get all the ice I want from my refrigerator. I never take such luxuries for granted.

I suppose that I really appreciate such things because I spent much of my life without them. My daughters always laugh and say that if things get really bad with climate change I will be able to show them how to do things the old fashioned ways. I suppose that I should train them like my mother did. She was rather amazing in her knowledge of running a household and I took my cues from her. 

Anyway, it’s time to quit using writing as an excuse and get back to working on the next set of blinds. They aren’t going to get clean by themselves. As far as I know there is not yet a machine that I might set loose on them. If someone would like to invent it, I can almost guarantee that I will purchase it. It’s the one task that I still detest. I do blinds, but I don’t like it!

Learning To Come Inside When It Rains

I recently served as a substitute Bunco player with a group of ladies who’ve been enjoying a monthly reunion for over twenty years. They were a friendly and lively bunch who had quite obviously become quite close through their tradition of sharing their homes to host dinner, drinks and gaming twelve times a year. They were particularly excited because the pandemic had halted their get togethers but this year they had managed to meet with regularity. 

They spoke of watching their children grow into adulthood over the span of time that had united them. They shared stories of teachers, sporting events, churches that they had mutually attended from the time that they were young mothers leaning on one another for advice and support. They were a happy and friendly bunch who warmly welcomed me to their circle if only for that one night. 

I realized as I listened to their chatter and laughter how much I had missed such gatherings during the past couple of years. I also felt a bit out of step, unaccustomed to being around so many people at once. I had somehow lost my ability to be relaxed in a crowd. It felt as though I had been in a long slumber like Rip Van Winkle and I had awoken to find that I was struggling to resume my former enthusiastic and energetic interaction with the world outside my home. 

I mentioned to the ladies that I had somehow lost track of time and found myself constantly having to refer to my calendar and my reminders to keep up with the rush that is resuming in my life. I had slowed myself to days, then weeks, then months of journeying from room to room in my home without the least bit of urgency to follow any kind of routine. In the process I had grown to enjoy the solitude, especially on days when the weather turned cold and rainy. I began to prefer the lifestyle imposed on me by the virus and my own sense of caution. 

I opened a big discussion with my observation. Each of the women admitted that they had lost all sense of time and place and were still struggling to return to a way of life that they had hitherto taken for granted. Part of them longed for the old days and part of them enjoyed the slower pace and the quiet that the pandemic had granted them. They had adjusted their lives to a new way of doing things. 

I have always liked the colder weather of winter and even the days when rain chills my bones and makes me think of warm cocoa, a comfy chair and a good book. Those are the times when I did not want to have anything to do on my schedule. I gloried in being able to stay at home back in the days when I was mostly rushing from one place to another, one task to another, but most times I did not have the luxury of halting the demands on my time. Then came the pandemic that changed everything. Slowing down so dramatically during the past many months has made me more inclined to cancel an appointment when the weather or my mood yearns to simply enjoy the quiet sound of rain falling outside my windows. 

Even my students and their parents trend toward more a more leisurely way of enjoying life. They are more likely to cancel a lesson if they feel a bit under the weather than they once were. If they are overwhelmed by commitments they back away from rushing to meet every demand. It is as though all of us are reassessing what is important and how we want to proceed forward with our lives. Old habits are being called into question as we put our routines back together and decide what we really want to do. 

I learned from the ladies at the Bunco party that everyone’s life has changed in some very dramatic way. Each of us had spent time assessing our values and determining how we wish to proceed. Most of us have chosen a slower pace, a desire to devote ourselves to enjoying small things, the favorite things, rather than attempting to do everything. Some of the women are exercising more. Others are traveling. They are leaving jobs that make them unhappy for those that give them a sense of joy and purpose. They are scaling back, taking time to sit with a warm cup of tea and just relax on a cold rainy day. 

I enjoyed the Bunco party even though I was a bit anxious about being with strangers and wondering if I still have a knack for chatting. I found that listening was much better than talking. It was quite enjoyable to learn how people that I only met for that one night were coping with the craziness of the world. There were many commonalities among us even as we were also so very different. 

I am glad I had the opportunity to meet them but now I plan to hunker down for a couple of days as a cold front with rain is coming my way. I want to balance my interactions with quiet and serenity. There’s another party in a couple of days and I am not yet back in my old form. I’m not so sure that I can handle so much gaiety without balancing it with alone time. 

I sometimes wonder if those of us who have traveled together alone will ever re-adjust to the old ways of living. I know that I missed my busy schedule when it first became interrupted. Now I find myself questioning why I ever rushed so hectically from one hour to another. I hardly ever stopped long enough to really enjoy what I was doing. For years many of my dearest friends and relatives have cautioned me to slow my pace, allow myself time to just relax. I always protested that I did not know how to do such thing, but now I do and it is gloriously freeing. I have learned how to come inside from the rain without feeling guilty and I like it.

Be the Grinch

Photo by SLAYTINA on

Most of us will begin decorating, shopping and planning for Christmas in the coming days if we have not already done so. I’ve begun many of my preparations by visiting the stories while there is still lots of inventory from which to choose. I’ve noticed that the Grinch is particularly popular this year. He’s always been part of our yuletide celebrating because somehow my family has great fondness for him.

It began when my husband and I were children and we watched the Dr. Seuss cartoon on television with Boris Karloff narrating the tale. As children we learned how to sing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The words of that song were pure genius and we laugh at them to this very day. In honor of those beloved memories my husband wears a really ugly Grinch t-shirt every Christmas day and we scatter Grinch memorabilia around the house with our other decorations. 

While we laugh at the Grinch we often obscure the profound meaning of his story with our focus on his Scrooge-like ways. In truth he was a tortured soul, isolated from the rest of society by prejudice and misunderstanding. He was a foundling initially loved by two women who saw his goodness in spite of how different he was. At school, however, he was bullied and often shunned. His attempts to be part of the group went unanswered, angry and frustrated he moved as far away from the town and its people as possible. His only companion was his faithful dog. There his feelings of hurt and anger grew and grew until one Christmas he focused on seeking revenge by stealing the trappings of Christmas that seemed to be so all important to the townspeople.

Of course we all know the story of the Grinch stealing presents and stockings and even the roast beast for the Christmas feast. He was about to push the sleigh loaded with all of the holiday cheer over a precipice when he heard the people of the village below singing happily even without their worldly goods. It was then that he realized that sweet little Cindy Lou was atop the sleigh and in danger of falling onto the rocks below. His heart swelled and he saved her and all of the presents just in the knick of time. He became a changed man. 

We rarely pay enough attention to the Grinch’s reconciliation with himself and the people of the town. He found the goodness that had always been in his heart and that goodness overcame his anger from being shunned by many of the people in the village. At the same time, Cindy Lou taught everyone the meaning of unconditional love. It is a true Christmas story as earnest as It’s A Wonderful Life

In truth we have many Grinches living among us who have become that way because they were deemed to be different or unsavory or unworthy by the societies in which they live. Being treated with disdain over and over again tears down the soul. Over time it sometime leads to seething anger and maybe even crime. Being an outcast is difficult and rarely leads to good outcomes. Peace only comes from everyone setting aside their preconceived notions about each other and demonstrating kindness and understanding.

The Christmas story is all about love. A baby was born in a manger and that baby would grow up to be Jesus. His message remained the same throughout his very short lifetime on this earth. He embraced outcasts, cured the sick, bent rules to perform miracles. He loved children and women and even prodigal sons. He told us to love each other the same way we love ourselves. He would have loved the Grinch and would have urged us to do so as well. 

The Christmas story is about forgiveness. We know that eventually Jesus would die on a cross like a common criminal. He would remind us as he was dying that he was willing to forgive those who tortured him. We too have to power to renew our determination to be our better selves. All we need do is sincerely have contrition for our sins. We in turn must be willing to forgive others.

The Christmas story is told in so many different ways but its message is universal. Our task is to be good to one another, even the least among us that we sometimes do not understand. The story of the Grinch is a parable. With humor and rhyme and song it reminds us that during the holiday season there is nothing more important than embracing our fellow humans no matter how they look, or speak or believe. 

Love was born at Christmas time. Spread good cheer wherever you go. Welcome all. Watch your heart grow. Be the Grinch!