When I was a kid in the eighties, this blue tin of little butter cookies was a staple in my paternal grandparents’ home.
My grandma was an amazing cook. She was an old fashioned Appalachian cook who was always prepared to throw together a great meal with homemade noodles, potatoes and fried meat of some kind. She made delicious pies and cakes including a Mandarin Orange Cake that I attempt to recreate every Easter.
For all her amazing qualities in the kitchen, cookies weren’t her thing. She tried but they were just never that good. Isn’t that funny? She could can a garden full of vegetables and make homemade pie crust with her eyes closed but couldn’t pull off a decent sugar cookie.
She mostly filled the cookie jar on her vinyl tablecloth clad table with store bought cookies and there was frequently a tin of these little butter cookies on hand too.
I hadn’t thought about them in years but was recently transported back to that old kitchen with the African violets in the window and a jar full of bacon grease on the stove. That’s because I found small tins of these cookies at the Dollar Tree. This package is about a fourth the size that she always bought but it was the perfect amount of cookies to make me smile.
Honestly, they aren’t that good but I enjoyed dunking them in a mug of hot chocolate. My grandpa always dunked his cookies in cup of coffee and now I understand that they taste a little better with the extra punch of flavor.
I feel no need to run out and buy more but, golly, I did enjoy this batch. And now I have the tin to remind me of those happy days!
This image comes from my whirlwind trip to Ohio’s Amish Country this fall. The Farm At Walnut Creek is a working farm where you can see people farming, cooking and handling animals. Inside the house, the basement kitchen was a bustling place during my visit.
My nose led me inside to purchase warm loaves of homemade bread but I lingered a while to observe their activity. I enjoyed listening to the ladies speak to one another in their Pennsylvania Dutch and watched as they toiled about their work.
But the thing I liked best here was this wall of homemade canned goods.
Both of my grandmothers canned vegetables, fruits and meats – most of it stuff they raised themselves. This activity was common for their generation but it’s increasingly rare to hear people talk about canning today.
I’m all for the old ways but, if I can’t freeze it, I am not going to mess with it.
Yet, I have fond memories of green beans, homemade pickles and fresh grape juice canned to enjoy another day.
The mere sight of all those rows of canned goodies was enough to take me back to the sweltering kitchens of my childhood. It was here that food was prepared and giant pots of boiling water were used to vacuum seal dozens of lids on jars for another day.
It’s both a survival tool and an act optimism that you will indeed survive the seasons long enough to enjoy all that good food. I would love to announce that canning will be my next new hobby. But, as long as I have freezer space and a supply of ziplock bags, this will not be the case.
Instead, I’ll just enjoy the picture and the memories of green beans on a cold winter day.
My grandma always kept African Violets. She had a brilliant green thumb and her kitchen windowsill was always lined with these pretty little plants.
The leaves are velvety and the flowers are tiny and delicate in shades of pink, white, blue and purple. They are sweet little flowers and always make me think of her.
So when I found a collection of African Violets for sale at Franklin Park Conservatory Saturday, I googled them to learn that they aren’t toxic to cats. It took just a second to decide that it might be fun to take one home.
When I asked the cashier for advice on how to keep it alive, it was kind of a joke. Sadly, I’m pretty sure the poor little thing heard me and probably died a little inside right there on the counter. Plants probably don’t get humor.
She was probably wondering what incompetent monster was kidnapping her. Why would her caregivers allow this maniac to leave with her?
They told me to let the soil dry out, to water from the bottom and to keep it in a container that seems a little too small as being slightly root bound encourages bloom.
What we didn’t talk about was how to keep it healthy on the way home when the temperature was nearly 8o degrees.
First I blasted the AC while driving. Then I abandoned the poor little thing in the hot car while I shopped. Then AC, then the greenhouse effect. This process was repeated a few times.
It was looking pekid by the time we made it home. I gave her some water in a saucer and said nice things. Maybe some kind, welcoming words will do her some good.
Some studies say that talking to plants will encourage them to grow faster – something about sound and vibrations. It’s not about the words so much as the sounds. It seems worth a shot.
If you need me, I’ll be speaking gently to my new friend and trying to reassure her that I won’t kill her. You know, lying to my plant.
On Saturday, I spent much of the day baking cookies at my parents’ house. Afterward, we watched Christmas movies while a kitty cat purred in my lap.
Their house is always warm and it was cold outside when I left. The shock of cold and the starry sky reminded me of a Christmas Eve long ago when we spent an evening with my grandparents. I was small and all the adults kept talking about how a certain little girl needed to go home to bed so Santa Claus could come.
The colorfully lit tree was decorated with an assortment of ornaments accumulated over time and I sat under that tree to open a gift from my grandparents. I don’t recall the gift but I do remember the little candy dish filled with old fashioned hard candy that you buy at the store. I remember the laughter among adults and the warmth of that old house.
The memories made me smile as I hummed Bing Crosby’s White Christmas on the way to the porch.
This year is much different. Most of the people who provided the laughter and warmth of that home are gone now. Many who are left are too young to remember those people and that place.
This year has been haunted by hardship and loss for so many. This will be our first Christmas without my aunt Maryann. Another family member recently received a terrible diagnosis. My great aunt Marcella died over the weekend. She was the last of her generation in my grandma’s family. A college friend lost three immediate family members just days apart during this season of cheer. We have lost longtime family friends including one who just passed on Sunday. My mother is coping with injuries from her fall at Walmart over the weekend but is probably lucky to be alive.
Things aren’t going well and it’s a far cry from the picture perfect Bing Crosby moments of my childhood. It gets harder to be joyful at Christmas as you age because you’re more aware of all the troubles of the world around you.
However, as I write this I keep glancing at something written on a post-it note that I stuck to my desk months ago. Little did I know it would come in handy today. It simply says “Gratitude turns what you have into enough.”
It isn’t always easy but I’m choosing to be grateful for the memories and grateful for the time we had with all those who have left empty seats at our table. I’m grateful for the people and all the good in my life today. And when you look at it that way, it still hurts but maybe it hurts a little less.
My Aunt Mary Ann said that she wished she had spent more time listening to older relatives and remembering their stories. Yet, when I expressed interest in her stories and maybe writing some down, she didn’t understand why I was interested. She said her life was ordinary and that there was nothing to write about.
So I wrote this story using a few of her memories and my own observations about how she lived. I was able to read it to her a few weeks before she passed. It was important to me that she know that her life wasn’t ordinary and that the way she lived made a difference.
I read it at her funeral and have debated for a week whether or not to share it here. It’s longer than my typical post but I hope you have the time to enjoy it.
The picture is a snapshot of how I will always remember Mary Ann – a young single mother who dressed up as Raggedy Ann to take her daughter and very small niece to a Halloween party. That little Tweety Bird is me!
An Extraordinary Life
My Aunt Mary Ann believed that she lived a plain old ordinary life. That’s common among people to think there’s not much interesting to say about them. What they don’t understand is that everyone has a story to tell and that it is in the ordinary that we often find the most extraordinary things.
Mary Ann loved to reminisce, especially about her earliest memories of growing up in the little house below Allensville. Life revolved around the family and she had beautiful memories of time spent with her older sister Tootie (that was a nickname), younger brother Ronnie (my dad) and their parents.
She said that she couldn’t have asked for a better family as her parents believed that family was more important than anything and proved that time and again. They made sure they all ate together, they played with the kids, took them to Sunday School, worked hard, and did their best to give their kids all they needed and some things they wanted too. They taught their kids to work hard and to follow the Golden Rule.
Their dad had grown up poor and the Betts name wasn’t very good when he was a young man. Others before him had done wrong and the Garretts didn’t believe that Earl Betts was good enough for their Garnet. When they didn’t approve of the union, the couple eloped. He worked hard to prove the Garretts wrong and to be a good provider for his wife and young family. Mary Ann remembered that they taught their kids that their good name was the most important thing they had and that they needed to protect their name as though their life and everything they held dear depended on it.
Born just after the war, these three were among the last kids in America to know a world not dominated by cheap foreign made stuff. There wasn’t a Dollar General in every berg and people didn’t get a lot of new things every trip to the store. Televisions hadn’t yet infiltrated every living room, driving people in from the front porch where conversations happened and lightening bugs were caught. They were among the last generation to know a time when the family meal was more important than kids sports. They knew the joys of free time, of days playing outside and entertaining themselves with made up games, mud pies and playing house.
She remembered lots of snowball fights with her siblings. At one point during an especially memorable one, snowballs began falling from above. They realized their dad was on the roof of the house, performing an aerial attack. While he was a young man with much responsibility, it sounds like he could be a big kid himself.
The year Ronnie was born, a storm buried southern Ohio under a foot or more of snow that Thanksgiving. It was the biggest snowstorm in Ohio’s history and the National Guard was mobilized to help. Mary Ann was just three years old but this historic snow was one of her earliest recollections. She remembered opening the door to find a path her dad had dug outside between two walls of snow. She was just a toddler and admits that it might not have been that tall but remembered these walls of snow vividly and with wonder in her voice.
There was a lot of wonder during these years.
Christmas was an especially happy time. In fact, she remembered holidays the likes of which modern kids will never know. “We didn’t get a bunch of stuff all year long so we really looked forward to Christmas. It was special.”
When it came to trimming the tree, the family had a few store bought ornaments but they mostly used things they made. She recalled making paper chains and stringing popcorn. She said her parents would hide small things in the tree as well, sending them on a treasure hunt to find what little gifts waited for them. She said “We didn’t get a ton of stuff but we liked what got. We were excited for our gifts and mom and dad made it as special as they could.”
Life wasn’t perfect but it was good and it was a blessing to have two young parents who had a drive to give their kids a better life than they had. She said they were probably poor but they never knew it because everyone around them was poor too.
By the time she was a teenager, the two younger boys – Randy and Merle – had made surprise appearances. This made them a family of seven that, by that time, lived up on Garrett Ridge. She remembered being old enough to help with laundry, cooking, chores and her youngest brothers when needed. It was about this time she noticed that not every family had a dad that helped around the house and parents who were partners.
She loved the life they had as a family when Randy and Merle arrived but believed that she, Tootie and Ronnie got the better part of their parents when they were little. Randy and Merle may have had more material items but the three older kids had more of their parents’ time and energy.
“Yes, I had a wonderful childhood. Of course, I was a good kid and didn’t cause trouble,” she liked to say.
Her brother Ronnie remembers things a little differently, often complaining that his older sisters were mean to him when he was a little boy. After years of banter and accusations that she was a little goody two shoes and he was a brat, I asked for her memories.
Mary Ann offered a firm denial.
“I never did nothing to that boy….. but if I did….he had it coming.”
She went on to admit that there was one small occasion that she did get him into trouble. Just one, of course. “He was having one of his fits he was so famous for and I had a sun burn. He hit my sunburned arm with a little toy truck. And I’ll tell you, it did hurt. But it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as I made out when I went running to tattle. I should have won an Oscar for that performance. So yeah, I got him in trouble on purpose but he had it coming,” she insisted.
She grew up, got married and had a baby of her own but found herself in a bad situation. When she left that marriage, she took with her eleven year old Tracey and started anew.
These years were hard. “I was bound and determined not to take help. I wanted to prove that I could do it and I wanted her to be proud of me. Yeah, it was hard at times but I kept us afloat and she was all the inspiration I needed to keep going. I just had to look at her.”
And then, just as suddenly as the winds will shift on a spring day, there came a person who would change her entire life. That’s when she met Vearl, her best friend, the love of her life and her soulmate.
Mary Ann could be stubborn and sometimes opinionated but she had a wonderful sense of humor. Vearl was the only person who could match her wit and go toe to toe with her. She said he treated her “like gold” but that it was hard for her to adapt to having a partner who wanted to do things for her and who wanted to give her the best he could. She said it was hard to go from shouldering all the burden to having someone who wanted to help.
“He was the best thing that ever happened to me. Every year of discontent I ever had was worth it when I had him.”
Tracey once asked her why they didn’t ever go out and she said it was because they were just happy being together. They could watch tv, sit on the couch and talk or go out for ice cream and be perfectly happy because they were together.
Vearl fit in with the family just like another son and gave my grandmother someone else to feed. Food was always important in the family and there was nothing better by Mary Ann’s estimation than to have all the family together for a meal. She was a little wistful when she explained “Those are some of my happiest memories as an adult, having everyone together for a meal.”
Mary Ann was a wonderful cook who learned from her mother how to make pies and noodles from scratch and how to make the simplest dish taste amazing. But her mom took feeding people to a new level. She remembered bringing Vearl for Sunday dinners and said her mom always wanted to feed them as much as she could. “We would eat lunch at noon and she’d want to feed us again before we left at three. Vearl used to say you’re the eatenest bunch of people I’ve ever seen.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
As so often happens, passing time left a lot of empty seats around that table. Her parents, siblings and then Vearl and Tracey left this world, carving out a reminder that growing older is a privilege not afforded to everyone.
It was during these years that I learned my Aunt Mary Ann was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known and I have often wondered how it possible for one person to go on after so much tragedy. Many of us would be tempted to embrace the darkness, to be awash with grief and to become bitter. The rest of us might have sat down with a bag of Oreos and been overwhelmed by our grief but Mary Ann did not.
Instead, she made the best of each day, moving forward with whatever grit and determination it took. She understood that life is for the living so she got up every day, got dressed and did her chores. She read her Bible and worshiped at her church. She shopped and ate out with friends.
She always cherished time with her family. Mary Ann was never too busy to spend time with her family whether for a meal or to pass an afternoon on the porch. When she asked you how you were, she really wanted to know.
When someone was sick, she brought soup and cookies. When you were too busy to cook because you were having a yard sale, she brought lunch. Sometimes she just showed up with a homemade pie because she had cherries and felt like making a pie.
These acts of kindness and consideration kept her busy and productive. They kept her engaged with the people who mattered most to her. In doing so, she taught us some valuable lessons about living and mourning, about honoring those who came before us, and how to go on despite our grief. Mary Ann never allowed her struggles to define her but they certainly made her stronger.
She said two things that give me pause.
She enjoyed reminiscing, not because she lived in the past, but because those memories are a powerful tool for finding happiness today. “Memories help you through the hard times. When someone dies, the memories you have of them don’t die. So as long as you have those memories, you haven’t completely lost them. Those memories will keep you going.”
The other thing that seemed so fitting and profound was this. “Everyone has to go through things. Sometimes there’s a lesson to be learned. Even though you’re struggling and even though you think you’re not doing too well, you may be helping someone else. You may be showing them how to do it.”
After watching her all these years, I am reminded of a scripture. “This is the Day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Yesterday has given us wonderful memories to help make the hard days better. It teaches us lessons and makes us smarter. It gives us memories that will help us keep our loved ones alive and make us grateful for having them. Mary Ann understood better than anyone that tomorrow is not promised. We can make plans and look ahead but there’s no guarantee any of us will see the sun rise on a new day. But today, this day, is the most important one because it’s the only one you have.
Mary Ann showed us this. She led by example, proving herself to be strong and capable. She was also wise enough to be grateful for those memories as well as for all that she had in the present day.
There are people in this world who do far less with much more. There are people who lose their way after a tragedy and who don’t understand that remembering a loved one is the best way to keep them alive. There are people who will never learn these lessons, much less so generously share them with others.
There’s nothing ordinary about this level of wisdom and grace. There’s nothing ordinary about my Aunt Mary Ann’s life. In fact, if you ask me, it was indeed quite extraordinary.
* * *
This is the story I read to Mary Ann but it’s not the end of her story. Her life on earth has ended after a long period of suffering and hardly complaining at all. Cancer is evil but she showed us that even though she couldn’t beat it, she could die with dignity.
She showed us how it’s done.
But that’s not the end of her story either. You see, Mary Ann was a believer. She knew in her heart that there is a better place waiting, a place where there is no more grief, loneliness or pain. There is no cancer. She was looking forward to an incredible homecoming where she would be reunited with her family and all those she’s honored and missed for so long.
The Native Americans believe that the prayers of grandmothers we never knew are still protecting us. I like to think that she has also met people she never knew in life but whose blood has coursed through her veins and whose prayers have protected her all these many years.
And when you think about it that way, things aren’t so bad.
When I read this to Mary Ann and I got to the part with the scripture – This is the day the Lord has made – she said Amen. That meant a lot to her, this idea that we must value each day we are given as though it is the best and most important day.
So these are the words I want to leave you with because I’m sure she would want it that way.
This is the day the Lord has made. Let us be glad for this beautiful day and for this time we all have together. Let us be glad for the time we had with Mary Ann and for all those who have left empty seats at our tables.
Let us rejoice for these gifts. And let us rejoice for Mary Ann who we know is happy, at peace and who we know is rejoicing.
One of my favorite solo road trips took me meandering around southern Indiana a few years ago. It was one of those incredible, freeing weekends when I just sort of wandered into all the right places.
A Pokey Lafarge concert at the Astra Theater in Jasper, pictured here, was my destination but I found so many wonderful things to see and do along the way. There were nice people, roadside oddities, museums and so much more that I can’t even begin to describe what fun it was. One cool morning I spent wandering around photographing architecture and chasing the incredible green roof of a church in the distance. Not to mention the sweet lady who ran an one of Indiana’s oldest hardware stores.
These memory, while sweet, are making me discontent. I’m ready to get out and do something soon.
Even when the world stopped last year I managed to get out for hikes and socially distanced fun. I took a couple of short, calculated trips in the fall but neither of them worked out as planned thanks to weather, Covid and other issues. It was satisfying hibernating this winter but my spring allergies have been merciless, making it hard to even leave the house. A mere walk to the mailbox steals my voice and leaves me with fluid on the ears the next day.
There’s not been much fun this spring beyond reading and dreaming of days when the pollen gets washed away by the rain. I just reread that line and realized how sad it sounds.
I’m ready to hit the road and see something new. It would be difficult to take a trip right now that compares with that Great Indiana Adventure of 2018, as I like to think of it, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
I’m hoping to hit the road soon. I’m vaccinated and have some ideas about how to have fun that will be low risk and new to me. My escape is so close I can almost taste it.
For now though, I’ll keep my head down and my windows closed while I wrap up a work project and avoid the pollen so that running away from home is an option in the (hopefully) near future.