Through the eyes of a neighbor

One of the greatest men of God of our time is undisputedly Billy Graham. The reach of his ministry has touched the four corners of the earth.

I remember watching a message he delivered in Louisville, Ky. some years ago. He shared his realization that he was finally old, when not too long ago he thought of himself as young. He went on to say that this point in life was “definitely not the golden years.” But he feels it is a good time to look back on life and come closer to God.

If we are blessed with long life, aging is something we all will face either in our own lives or that of our family members.

My first experiences with the effects of aging came from a childhood neighbor, Bessie Yarbray.

Bessie was a regal lady who found strength in self-reliance. She was born at the turn of the last century in a farmhouse less than five miles from our subdivision. She married and raised a family of (I think) five children.

When I met her as a toddler, she and her new husband Homer moved in across the street to begin their new life together near the age of 70.

She stood around five feet, and if a strong wind blew through, it seemed she could catch hold and fly along.

She and Homer stood fast against the tide of concerns shared by both of their families over their late marriage.

While my memories of Homer are sketchy at best, I am told we had a fun relationship as he and Bessie treated me like a grandchild. My strongest memories fade-in after Homer was called home.

Bessie once again found herself starting over in a place that she and Homer hoped to share.

Bessie never learned to drive. She eventually sold Homer’s car and relied on the kindness of friends and distant kin to get her to the store, doctor and church. She would always find ways to repay their kindness so she would not be beholding to them.

She was a constant presence in the lives of all my friends throughout my childhood.

Some days the smell of fresh-baked oatmeal cookies would permeate the street in front of her house. This would always be an excuse to stop in to check on her and, of course, have a cookie or two or three.

She enjoyed watching her afternoon soaps and volunteering at Sardis United Methodist Church. She became a regular fixture among my mother’s circle of friends as she helped with school events and attended graduations and scouting award banquets.

Since we lived closer than any of her children, many of the first decisions concerning her care often would fall to my mother.

In the 70’s, doctor’s told her she had colon cancer, which required surgery to remove or she would die. While in the hospital, she changed her mind, and when the nurses came by to give her a sedative before surgery she pretended to take it. She then left the hospital never to return. It was more than a decade before she would again see a doctor. She would live another 20 years, and to my knowledge, any doctor never again mentioned cancer.

Well into her 80’s and 90’s, Bessie cared for her yard by trimming hedges; raking and mowing every week it was needed.

“If I don’t mow my yard you know something is wrong,” she would say.

She planted a garden each year, which provided all her favorite, fresh vegetables.

With the bounty of her garden, she created dishes you would not believe. Thinking of her homemade soup makes my mouth water. The soup would not be complete without a slice of her piping-hot cornbread.

With the exception of an occasional change of a light bulb or flagging down the mailman or a neighbor to have them pull the cord on her push mower, Bessie didn’t ask for much help.

Whenever sickness loomed, she always stressed to us: “No matter what, I do not want to leave my house.”

As we became busy with illnesses in our own family, other neighbors kindly stepped in to help Bessie whenever needed.

A broken hip which came while working in her yard in her mid-90’s would finally begin a short period when she had to look to others for her day-to-day needs. She even regained her strength once again and stood on her own feet.

One of the last calls I received from her came at a time when she had missed taking her medicine properly and asked me if I saw the house going down the road? I stopped and looked to see if perhaps there was a house going down the road. There was not. We followed up to make sure that she was taking her medication properly.

About a year or so later, Bessie passed away.

She never moved away from her home except for a few weeks following her broken hip. She was blessed with a strong, self-reliance that made her keep pushing forward no matter what.

She reached the finish line her way, and with her faith in God still straight and strong.

The seeds of wisdom spit forth

This past week I gathered with kin beside the stream that flows by my late grandparent’s home in the mountains of Tennessee. The area is now a state park, in the stream one of our cousins placed a watermelon to chill its bright red innards. We shared so much fun that day, as we cleaned up, we discovered the melon ice cold, and it had missed out on all the fun. As I sat on the back porch today looking out watching the grass grow, this image carried me in my mind’s eye sitting similarly on my grandmother’s porch. It was a summer where I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Kitty and Aunt Norma Jean. Flossie, the milk cow, was meandering through the yard headed for a shade tree where she laid down and tried to create a bit of a breeze using her tail to move an almost non-existent breeze.
Grandma was doing a much better job in her rocker with her funeral home fan and her right arm. In fact she managed to move enough that I picked up a bit of the breeze as mother and I went back and forth on the porch swing. Norma Jean leaned back in a ladder back chair against the wall abnormally still for her.
It was one of those days once referred to as the dog days of summer. I never quite understood that except I guess that the similarities with dogs it brought to us humans. We all sat around with our tongues hanging out of our mouths panting or at least so it seemed to me as a kid.
After a while I just couldn’t stand being still so I headed down to the branch to dangle my feet in the water. You know that works a lot better if you take off your shoes and socks. I never said I was real bright back then, or maybe it was just the heat.
Before I knew what had happened I looked around and everyone from the porch had joined me and you know there were smiles on their faces. They actually remembered to take their shoes off.
It was like the branch filled our bodies with a sense of hope. Hope that the heat would pass, and we would once again feel like ourselves again.
It wasn’t long though until I realized it wasn’t me that had drawn the group to the branch, especially when I noticed mother had spread out a red and white tablecloth on the bank beneath a tree. On it was a large knife and a cutting board and a saltshaker but there was nothing else.
What I did not know was that Grandma had a surprise for me. She sent me down into the deepest spot in the branch and told me to reach in for a surprise.
There was a deep green watermelon from the garden that was now cold as can be from the water running over it for most of the day.
I lifted it out and brought it up and set it on the cutting board. My shoes squished with each step.
We all now gathered around as mother cut the watermelon in pieces and we each began eating our fill.
Red fruit with a touch of salt and all those black seeds. How do you be polite with all those black seeds?
I followed Grandma’s lead and realized she was throwing the conventions of proper etiquette out the window. Rather than disposing of them quietly in a napkin, she suggested that we have a contest and see how far we all could reach spitting a seed.
We all took turns, seeing who could get across the branch. It is amazing how far the ladies could spit. They made it to the other side almost every time. Occasionally one fell short and down the branch it floated.
With each round, we found more laughter, each of us eventually won, and by the time we finished the melon, we had almost forgotten how hot it was when we started.
Our heat-induced melancholy was lost to the mischief of a melon and all its little seeds.
An added bonus, next year, the watermelons were so close to the branch, they didn’t even have to be carried and put in, they just rolled in themselves.

The seeds of wisdom spit forth

As I sat on the back porch watching the grass die, I could not help but find myself in my mind’s eye sitting similarly on my grandmother’s porch. It was a summer where I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Kitty and Aunt Norma Jean. Flossie, the milk cow, was meandering through the yard headed for a shade tree where she laid down and tried to create a bit of a breeze using her tail to move an almost non-existent breeze.

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Faces from the past and present

Have you ever sat down and looked through your photo albums or boxes of photos and not known whose face you were looking upon?

Just the other day I was looking at images from my kindergarten.

You would think I would be able to name every one of those kids; I mean it was just yesterday that we were sliding down the stair banisters at the Presbyterian Church, fighting in the church playground and arguing over who got to sit with Julie Badger, my kindergarten sweetheart.

Other than Julie, the rest of those kids’ names have just faded away. As I looked at photos of birthday party after birthday party, I saw so many classmates I could not even begin to remember.

You would think I could easily remember when, while blindfolded, I accidentally pinned the tale on the wrong donkey.

I never liked Jamie Winston much anyway. He was only invited because of diplomacy. If I left him out, then I wouldn’t get invited to his house. There would have been a crushing domino effect which could have set my second-grade social life on its ear.

I often sit and peruse photo albums that feature faces of people who I do not know. The photo had or has some significance to my late mother and father, or grandparents or another relative, so it found its way into the family collection.

In my room hangs the portrait of a great, great, great grandfather that meant much to my grandmother.

I will say it was not a favorite of my mother’s, as she sees this stern man whose eyes almost follow you as you enter the room. It reminds her of the haunted house paintings that scared Don Knotts and Jim Nabors to death on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

It took me years of coaxing to finally get grandma to part with it and let me be its caretaker. The same is true of so many other images I have gathered through the years.

I recently forwarded a photo from the collection of my grandmother Allie Bunch Franks to a distant cousin via e-mail.

I was hoping it may be one of her ancestors. All the information I had was that it was my grandmother’s cousin Dave Bunch, who had an affinity for building different creations inside bottles. Three were featured in the postcard. Grandma even had one that sat upon the mantle.

I always remember marveling at how he could have gotten his creation inside that bottle when I peered in it as a child. I thought he must have had very small fingers to reach up in there and do that.

Beside him in the photo were two girls, one younger than the other, and unfortunately paint had covered the older girl’s face years ago.

From my cousin’s review, she made the educated guess that due to clothing styles, it was likely her great uncle rather than her great grandfather who shares the same name.

I have recently been going through many of our family photos and posted numerous unnamed ones to Facebook as well as hundreds from my father’s time in Germany sharing them in hopes someone will recognize and appreciate them, thankfully several were. It is amazing how we can easily forget the names of those kids who were at our birthday parties or the cousin we seldom see. It is so important to take the time to mark your photos in pencil not pen as to the details of who, what, when, and where.

Through the 60s and 70s, many film developers were kind enough to put the date of development on the photo, which helps. I think many of those new developing machines may include that info in the code it leaves on the back of the image.

As I look at the fading images, it is amazing to me how older images from the 30s, 40s and 50s endure literally unchanged while those of the 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s are already fading into obscurity.

It is hard to imagine birthdays and Christmases simply gone because of poor film or film development, but that is much like our memories, they will likely fade with time as well.

I encourage those of you who have moved into the computer era, to scan your photos from every era into a computer database. Generally, you can include information about the photo right in the file in many programs. Make several CDs of the completed photo files and disperse them to your children, grandchildren. Put a copy in your safety deposit box.

Many even take the time to create little photo documentaries of the family history and their lives. Sit down and share these with your young grandchildren at the computer.

The main reason to disperse the copies is to make sure that many people have them in their collections in case of a natural disaster or fire. Then you might have a better chance of rebuilding your family photos.

When you consider all the time and money we spend on photos, you would think we would take the time to document the events that surround them. Now that we all create hundreds of digital images as part of daily life on the devices we carry, we still are letting them go unidentified unless posted in social media. I do wonder what will survive from our era for archaeologists to catalog a thousand years from now. Families have largely given up great paintings of their leading members that once lined great halls. Photos whether printed or digital will likely not survive as we know them.

Whenever I go into Cracker Barrel, I look up at the large portraits hanging on the walls and wonder if only someone had taken the time to write down a little about that person and put it with the portrait if they would now be staring out at thousands of Cracker Barrel customers or on the wall of a relative who knew they had an important life.

Like a newspaper documents the story of a community through its coverage, a well-kept photo collection documents the story of your family’s life. Will your teenage children or grandchildren care you took the time to do this? Probably not until they have children of their own, but who knows, the effort may prove beneficial to each of us as we look back later and get the benefit of knowing who is staring back at us.

I am still wondering who that blonde kid with the flattop, big ears, with my birthday cake on his nose is, oh wait, that’s me.

Every encounter leaves a memory

God has blessed us with so many things in this world.
For a columnist like myself, who spends so much time writing stories based upon the experiences and memories of things and people I have known, the memory is of tremendous importance.
I imagine that is true of most everyone.

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