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A Teacher’s Gift

Have you ever watched a child cast one toy aside and reach for something else? A friend of mine once told me he had watched his grandchildren open gifts and cast each one aside looking for the next one while spending no time with the one they just opened.
He shared with me that at that point he knew his grandchildren had come to expect too much, wanting more and more — rather than being satisfied with one gift, they wanted to rip through dozens and then simply cast them aside.
I looked at my watch as mother drove by the old Colonial Grocery Store saying, “Hurry, Mom, we are going to be late.” Of course we were not going to be late. The piano store was just next-door. I picked up my books and rushed inside. I was always amazed at a store filled with pianos — I really wanted to get there early so I could go through and try out several of them while I waited my turn with piano teacher Jean Stiles.
I do not know what made me want to go from instrument to instrument playing. Perhaps it was the same desire that made those children my friend had described ripping through more and more presents. Although the pianos were not mine and would not be.
The talents of gospel pianist Hovie Lister, Eva Mae LeFevre and classical pianist Victor Borge intrigued me. Several of my cousins had the knack to play piano along with their singing, so I had hoped the gene passed to me as well.
Of course, as a child of eight, my repertoire was a bit slim. In spite of the best efforts of my teacher, I was not the most proficient student who worked through “The Minuet” and “The Entertainer.”
No matter my deficiencies, I had a true desire and my mother supported that to no end. She worked overtime to afford a walnut Currier Spinet piano and pay for my lessons.
One day while sitting in my elementary school room, the entire course of my life changed. Dr. Donald W. Grisier (1918-2008), DeKalb County orchestra teacher, came into the room and played Ervin Rouse’s “Orange Blossom Special” on the violin. I have not been worth shooting since.
I had heard my great Uncle Tom Franks play the violin like his father had done before him at family gatherings, but now there was someone willing to sit and teach me.
After convincing my parents that I wanted to learn violin, I signed up. My mother once again went out of her way to see that I got the opportunity by renting an instrument. I also continued my piano study, but eventually it did fade away in the shadow of the fiddle. I realized I was not going to be the next Hovie Lister or Victor Borge. The fiddle would stick and lead me to some amazing places.
Dr. Grisier was someone that took great patience in sharing the string instruments. I applaud the foresight of the school system I attended in allowing him to travel between elementary schools building a base of students that would one-day form an orchestra when they reached high school. Just like with the piano, I really wanted to learn to fiddle and slowly passing through the basics and into the classical masters such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach was tedious for me. My early training actually relied on my ear as I mimicked what I heard the others play. I did so well, it took a while for Dr. Grisier to catch on and then make me buckle down to learn to read music.
Because of the gift of knowledge he gave I stayed with the orchestra all the way through high school, eventually scoring well in countywide competitions. My heart however was with the fiddle and it was through the common link of Dr. Grisier though he didn’t teach me to fiddle that gained me the invitation into that world. One of his other students was John Daniel. John was what I could call a voracious fiddler, consuming all that came his way. His father inviting other youth together at their home began the environment that fostered my growth as a musician and my creating my first act from those youth. 
While I would never consider myself a pianist, the knowledge I gained while learning about the instrument has served me extremely well in every musical endeavor. The experience prepared me for a lifetime of lessons in almost every pursuit I’ve chosen to follow.
So, while at times children may be spoiled by piles and piles of material gifts that simply get laid aside, if a child shows interest in music, even if the child has absolutely no talent for it, and may someday lay the expensive instrument aside for other pursuits, remember as the child’s practicing causes the paint to peel in the family room, love of music is a gift that will last a lifetime and can span the generations.

And they’re off! Here we go a shop-eling

The Christmas shopping season is in full swing and so has the mad dash to get everything done before all the kinfolk start gatherin’ around the icicle-strewn Douglas fir tree to open presents.
I remember waking to the smell of bacon frying Christmas morning. As I rushed into the living room, the tree would sparkle with what seemed like a thousand stars. I just knew that I caught a glimpse of Santa as the jolly old elf was moving about the house the night before.
There were so many beautifully wrapped red, green, silver and gold packages that my mother carefully placed under the tree, only to see all her handiwork destroyed in a matter of minutes Christmas morning.
My parents worked hard to put inside those packages items we had our eyes on, that we said we just could not live without. I know there were times they sacrificed what they wanted so that we would have a memorable Christmas. It is amazing though, since reaching adulthood I realized that “our wants will not hurt us.” If we do not get something we want, it is not going to be the end of world. In fact, in most cases, it is probably for the best.
I know my parents also were awakened much as I was with the smell of homemade buttermilk biscuits cooking in the oven. I’m sure they and their siblings rushed in to see the tree and their stockings filled with their presents.
Unlike my brothers and I, many in my parents’ generation were lucky to receive an orange, a stick of candy and maybe some small toy that their parents scraped and saved to buy. Toys were usually a luxury, as practical items like shoes or clothes were more likely.
My parents worked to give me and my brothers more Christmas gifts than they knew. Even more than the gifts they shared with us, it was the true spirit of the season that stands in my memory today.
As we push through the crowds of shoppers at Wal-Mart, we see the aisles covered in Barbies and GI Joes, icicle lights, and light-up Santa statues of every shape and size with which we can adorn our homes. When we attend the church plays and school recitals, we should remember really what the spirit of Christmas is, as we recognize the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. In the center of the celebration are our families. We are given the opportunity to pause and remember God’s greatest gift to us, his son.
Children today would probably look back and say what little many of our parents had for their childhood holidays. Back then they did not know they only had a little, because they had as much as any of their neighbors and in many cases more. During the holidays, our family gathered together around a table set with a mouth-watering feast prepared by loving hands with the ingredients available no matter how meager or abundant. The family would make a trip into the woods and select a tree off the farm, which they cut down and brought back home. The family decorated the tree with popcorn strings, construction paper chains and ornaments they crafted by hand.
Like the decorations, many of the gifts they shared were also fashioned by the hands of the parents, grandparents or siblings.
To me more than the toys, I remember what our family did together.
At our family dinners, mother always made it a point to include a neighbor or relative who was alone. While the holiday can be joyous for some, for others who are alone due to distance or the loss of a loved one, the time can be unbearable. Including someone outside the immediate family in your holiday festivities reminds us and our young people the importance of caring about others.
We always worked to gather items for those in need. Sometimes we knew them, sometimes we didn’t. Whether it was clothes, toys, or food, we tried to make someone else’s holiday better. I remember one year my mother and dad worked to gather and repair old bicycles to improve the holiday for the children of a large family.
I learned to cook very early. One of my tasks was to help prepare the Christmas cookies, which we shared with others who might not have them.
I’ll never forget one year. I thought I would help by getting a jump on the baking tasks, so I followed my grandmother’s cookie recipe. What I did not realize is that I had to adjust the mixture for the use of self-rising rather than plain flour. So, let’s just say the salt I added gave a new meaning to the words bitter sweet. But the gallons we prepared were still eaten, with more wanted and needed.
No matter what you plan for the holidays, remember it is not how brightly you decorate your home, the expense or number of the gifts you buy or the volume at which you play and sing the beloved carols that make it Christmas. It is what you do with your family to make it a memory that will stand for a lifetime, not only for you but for all those your family can touch this Christmas season. Take the time to make a difference. God never promised tomorrow, so make sure this holiday counts. You may just change a life —yours!