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A Cure for the Midwinter Blues

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From the end of November to the first of January the entire nation is a in a flurry of activity. First there is Thanksgiving dinner to plan and attend. Many families travel halfway across the country for this special time. Right on the heels of this comes Black Friday and Cyber Monday — the first official shopping days of the season. This is followed by many special sales days attended by frantic shoppers. There is the tree to choose, or bring out of storage and decorate, as well as the rest of the house, yard, and who knows what else. Then the great day comes and families gather, gifts are given, dinner is eaten, and we turn right into plans for the New Year complete with resolutions.

1 holiday

And then suddenly its over. Valentine's is two months away and we feel letdown and a bit depressed. We pack away all of the Christmas trappings and wonder what we will do with ourselves. But a special group of people, to which I belong, long for the coming of January. In a way, its one of our favorite months. This is the month we begin to plan our gardens!

Gardeners love January. Its cold, dark, sometimes snowy, but that is fine with us. We make a cup of tea or coffee and curl up with all the seed catalogs we have saved during the fall months. We break out pen and paper and make lists of what we need to order. We plan and we dream and sometimes we even start seeds that can be set out before the last frost.

My first move is to bring out my leftover seeds and sort through them to see which is still good and which ones I need to reorder. I love tins, and I have two I keep my seeds in.

2 seeds

After sorting and making a list, I turn to my favorite seed catalog — Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. This is practically the only catalog I use, although I always peruse the others that come in the mail. You never know what new tool, idea, or species you might come across.

This year I have a new addition to my gardening. As a writer I love journals, so I purchased the Old Farmer's Almanac Gardening Notebook. This will replace the ratty old notebook I had with lists of seeds, when to start the seeds, when to plant, when to harvest, what types of soil for each and recipes for organic bug control. I try to keep a record of how the plants turn out, what I need to change, what methods worked and what didn't, etc. Its a very valuable tool for gardeners. And one I need to curb my enthusiasm. I want to try everything, and I get in a great hurry to start my seeds. This book reminds me that if I start my tomatoes too early, they will get too big too soon and I will have no place for them. (My outdoor greenhouse has no heat but what the sun provides.)

3 books

Every year I try something new. This year, I will order fennel seeds. I love fennel, but it is not always available in the stores. I also want to enlarge my herb garden. I tried just four types last year, and had great success with them, so now I shall add a few more. I love herbs, because you can grow them in pots and make a lovely setting with them. And it gives great satisfaction to wander out to the herbs in the morning, cut some, and put them fresh into an omelet for Greg.

So if you have the midwinter blues about now, you might want to find some seed catalogs and consider planting a garden this year. The lovely thing about most vegetables is that you can plant them in containers to keep on your patio, or even in window boxes. A couple of tomato plants, a cucumber, and an eggplant in pots, with lettuce in a window box and you have the makings for egg plant Parmesan and a salad. And there is nothing better than a meal you grow yourself.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

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Christmas is upon us once again. It seems that only yesterday we were preparing for Christmas 2016. Where does the time go? As I get ready for the big day, my mind wanders back to all the Christmases of the past.

Christmas is much different today than it used to be. The celebrations were more traditional, with fewer frills, and more emphasis on family. Presents were different too. Most were handmade, and might only consist of a stocking with fruit, homemade cookies, and a few pieces of candy if you were lucky. I come from a long line of "pack rats," so I still have a few of the actual gifts my father and his siblings received. Daddy was very sentimental. He passed them down over the years, and I have kept them safe in a cedar box. I take them out now and again just to savor the past, and to show the grandchildren how fortunate they really are. But are they? Just think of the love and care my grandfather put into carving that yo-yo, or making that sling shot. And as insignificant as the marbles or fan seem, my grandparents had to save up for those. That kind of love is better than picking up something at Walmart, or ordering from Amazon.

1 Daddys gifts

My favorite Christmas story is the one about my Aunt Alta's doll. She wanted a doll more than anything, and all she had ever had were rag dolls made by my grandmother, or the tiny plastic one in the picture. One year, a peddler came to the Bruno Store and sold them several large porcelain dolls. My Aunt, who had just turned 12, spent many hours just staring at them and wishing with all of her heart for one. So Granny began to save part of her egg money, and Grandpa did some extra work at the forge, and the kind owner of the store put one doll back for them. A week before Christmas, they were able to pay for it, and Granny brought it home to hide it in her closet. Daddy and Aunt Alta were wild with joy. They suspected what was hidden there, and they begged and begged Granny to confirm their suspicions. At last, Christmas morning came. The doll was wrapped up in a blanket, and Aunt Alta carefully pulled her out. Then she just sat and hugged that doll and cried. Daddy said he didn't remember what he got that year. He was just so happy for her.

2 aunt alta with doll

Aunt Alta died two years later from complications of diabetes, and Granny sat the doll in her own bedroom. It remained there until her death, when I brought the doll home and put her in the high chair my grandfather had made for his daughter as a baby. I have loved Adele (Aunt Alta's name for the doll) and cared for her all these years. Last Christmas I told the story to my grandchildren and asked that one of them promise to care for her after I am gone. My oldest granddaughter gave her word, so I know that the special Christmas gift will never be forgotten.

3 Adele

I have my own memories as well. I didn't get many big toys as a child, but thanks to my Granny who lived with us, I always had a good Christmas. The only bill she contributed to was the monthly groceries, so she had lots of savings to spend on me at Christmastime. I still have my favorites in my library in as good a condition as I can keep them. I took great care of my toys because I knew they could not be replaced. They keep me company as I set in my library to read, or write, or study my Bible. And both my daughter and grandchildren have loved them and played with them as well.

4 my christmas

My husband has his own fond memories of Christmases gone by. They were an Air Force family, so for the most part, gifts were kept small and mobile. He says his favorite gift was his GI Joe. His brother's of course were toy airplanes. He says his mother always sat in the floor with them as they opened their gifts, just as excited to see their faces as they were to find out what was inside.

5 Greg

My grandchildren are very privileged. In fact, they have far more than they really need. And I am just as guilty in the giving. Every Christmas, they get a big toy, a book, a movie, and a craft kit from me. I often wonder if they will remember the simple awe of the gifts under the tree and the special memories I try to give them. Christmas was magic when my husband and I were small. There was no going to town and buying a toy just because you could. You had to wait all year for that special item you wanted so badly, then you held your breath knowing that you might not get it, if your parents could not afford it. And if you got it, you took extra care of it and valued it and it became a treasure. I think if we would go back to that, we would raise a better generation of children. And certainly create a whole new set of wonderful Christmas memories. May the ghosts of your Christmas past come to fill you with warmth and love this season. Merry Christmas everyone!

6 Drake

 

Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

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Last Saturday was our annual Christmas tree decorating party. I started this event when my first grandchildren came along. We always have Christmas at my house with finger foods, family time, and a big artificial Christmas tree. All of the grandchildren are in charge of putting the ornaments on the tree. Each is unique, and has a story behind it. Some have been on my tree since I was a teenager. Some were specially handmade by friends. Some were gifts given by co-workers. Some are to represent each family member: a ballerina for Kaydence, a hunting dog for Drake, a sparkly high heeled shoe for Marlee, the space shuttle for Josiah, an owl for Calli, a drum for my son, a handmade frame with a picture of my daughter, snoopy on a sled for Greg, the dove my mother bought for the top of our tree when I was small, the memorial angel for my mother-in-law. Each is so special and placed with loving care.

1 decorating

When I was small, getting the Christmas tree was always a big event. We have a large cedar grove near the back of the property and every December Daddy would take his axe and off we would go to choose a tree. Artificial trees were only found in the city at that time, and we had plenty of cedars to spare. Most of the time there was snow on the ground, so we bundled up in warm boots and coats and it just added to the magic.

It would take some time to choose just the right tree. It had to fit in the corner of the living room without intruding too far into the room. Mom was very particular about the shape. She wanted one nicely rounded with a peak at the top. Once we got the tree home, it was placed in a metal gallon bucket and big rocks jammed around the trunk to hold it upright. Then we filled the bucket two-thirds full of water, and Mom draped some white towels around the bucket for a tree skirt. Then the decorating began. We had big glass balls for ornaments, some lights, and of course lots of icicles and tinsel.

2 me  Dad

We carried this tradition on right up to the time I married. The next Christmas I found myself in Great Britain, alone at Christmas for the first time in my life and with no Christmas tree. You see, there were lots of servicemen stationed there and everyone wanted a tree. To get one, you needed to be at the base exchange when the locals brought the lives trees in for sale. Or, you had to be there when the load of artificial trees arrived from the states. You think Black Friday is bad? You should have seen the servicemen waiting for Christmas trees! There was only one load delivered every December, and if you missed it, you didn't have a tree. And we missed it.

I was devastated. That night I called Mom and cried on her shoulder about it. Five days later, a huge package arrived. My Daddy had driven the 30 miles to town and bought me an artificial tree, packed it up and mailed it express to me. That doesn't sound like a real miracle, but you have to understand my Dad. First off, he didn't believe in putting more miles on the truck than necessary. We only made that trip to town a couple of times a month. Then, there was the cost. There weren't many artificial trees sold in our area, because it was farm country and everyone had cedars on their property. The stores in town had begun to carry a few artificial trees, but they were very high priced because they weren't much in demand. Then, there was the cost of shipping the big box express and overseas, so I could have it before Christmas. All told, that tree probably cost more than a months worth of groceries. It arrived in a dented box, and was a bit mangled when I pulled it out, but it was the most beautiful Christmas tree I have ever owned. It was a visual statement of just how much my Daddy loved me. We carried that tree around with us for the six years Greg served in the Air Force.

3 1st tree

Once we were settled back home and living next to my parents, we decided to go back to the live cedar trees and now my children got to share in the choosing of the perfect tree. It was a time that give us many wonderful memories. Then, in October of 1997 my Daddy passed away. That Christmas I just couldn't face going for a cedar tree, so I brought out the battered old tree that Daddy had sent me so many years ago. Looking at that tree brought back all the joy of first receiving it, and how much my Daddy loved me.

As the years went by, my poor little tree fell apart, and we began buying newer, bigger artificial trees. Then, this year, my son and his wife decided to go back to the cedar grove and cut a real tree for Christmas. Watching them carry on the family tradition brought back all of the love and special memories of a childhood gone by. And I realized its not the tree that matters, but the love and memories behind it. A Christmas tree is not a symbol of Christ, or a holy icon. It is a place for the family to gather and create memories that last a lifetime. Ornaments are not just decorations, but visual reminders of people and acts of kindness. They tell the story of who the family is. And that is really what Christmas is all about.

4 cutting the tree

A Tough Nut to Crack

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The holiday season is upon us when a woman's fancy turns to baking! And one of the prime ingredients is nuts. Nuts in fudge, nuts in cookies, nuts in candies and cakes, nuts in salads and stuffings. And lets not forget peanut brittle! The most popular nut to bake with is the pecan. Followed by almonds and English walnuts. One of my personal favorites though is the black walnut.

Black walnuts are a basic part of farm life in the South. And they have had a bigger part in my life besides baking. When I was a child, there were two sure-fire ways for a youngster to make money. Collecting soda bottles (5 cents a return), or to sell black walnuts.

2 Walnuts on the ground

We have lots of black walnut trees on our 40 acres, but only three close to the house. They have been there all of my life. Years ago, Daddy would rake up the nuts and throw them in the dirt road that ran past our place so the cars would run over them and hull them for us. Then, usually in late October or early November, we would take empty burlap feed sacks, or gunny sacks as we called them, and stuff them full of the hulled nuts. We would load up the back of the pickup and drive 30 miles or so to the walnut factory where we could get as high as $7 for a load! And in the late '60s to mid-1970s that was a lot of cash.

1 Walnut trees

As a child, I was given a share of the profits which became my Christmas money for buying gifts. As I grew older, I could have more depending on how much work I put into bagging the nuts. One year I worked at it alone and gained the entire proceeds. How rich I was that year! I had enough money to buy Christmas presents and that new Carpenter album I wanted with money left over.

Probably why black walnuts are not very popular to cook with is the fact that they are so hard to harvest. I have never seen a harder nut to crack! How squirrels do it I will never know. Every fall, when we gathered our harvest to sell, Mom always kept a bushel basket for herself. Throughout the coming weeks, she would set outside and crack the walnuts with a hammer until she had a large plastic container full. Then she moved into the house and for the next few days she picked out the meat into a smaller container. This was accomplished in the evenings after chores and dinner were completed. She would settled down on the couch in front of her favorite show with the bowl of cracked nuts, an empty container, and a metal nut pick and work away. And when she was finished, there really wasn't much to show for it. That bushel basket of black walnuts might only give her four cups of nut meats or "goodies" as we called them. But it was worth it!

3 shelling process

There is nothing quite like the taste of black walnuts. Its a strong, earthy flavor that enhances so many dishes and just plain good to munch on as a snack. We could not afford pecans or other nuts, so all our baking was done with black walnuts. Mom never made fudge, but she did make cakes and pies with those goodies as well as putting them in fruit salads and jellos. And if there was enough left, they went into the Christmas stuffing.

4 bagged

We no longer harvest black walnuts for sale. In fact, I'm not sure there is even a place around here that buys them anymore. But my daughter-in-law and I still pick up a few for cooking purposes every year. Usually I sit out on the front porch to crack them on the front step with the exact same hammer my mother used and then take them into the house to finish them as Mom did, settled before a good movie while I pick out the goodies. My first bucket didn't yield much as you can see, but it will be enough for a stuffing I plan to make. And there are always more where those came from. That is, if I can beat the squirrels to them.

The Old Bruno School

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The Saturday after Thanksgiving was such a beautiful day that Greg and I decided to take a ramble with the camera. We wound up just a mile from home at the Old Bruno School, a place that is very dear to my heart.

1 entire view

Bruno used to boast of two one-room schoolhouses on either side of the Hampton creek. But in 1920 it was decided that there should be only one school for the area, and land was purchased from Mr. Ezekiel Adkins and a new school began. Bruno was the first Vocational Agricultural school west of the Mississippi River and the first accredited four year high school in Marion County. They began the first chapter of the Lincoln FFA. My father went to school there from first grade to graduation, and was a member of the FFA.

2 Daddys class

The elementary building was divided into four rooms. Three classrooms and a library. Each of the classrooms had one teacher who taught two grades. There was a playground to the side, which later held a slide, swing set, and a merry-go-round which my father helped to build.

3 elementary

Near the elementary building was the gymnasium, called Aggie Hall. It was built in 1926 and was the largest and nicest gym in the area. Below the back steps a message was carved into the sidewalk: May the doors of the school always be open to aspiring youth. James Langston.

4 gym

In 1935 a new building was constructed on campus comprised of an office, three classrooms, and a shop to work on the school buses which were now being used. The high school boys who were part of the Agri class helped in the construction. My father was one of those boys. Along with the construction of this building, a swimming pool was built out back and filled from the creek near by. Tennis courts were also set up just to the lower side of the building.

5 Ag building

There was also a building devoted solely to science. It was a wooden building painted white and comprised of two classrooms. In my day, we called it “The White Building." It is long gone now, a victim of dry rot and termite.

I also went to school there for the first seven years. It was a wonderful place to grow and learn. If you ask me for my favorite teachers from school, all three of them were from Bruno. Mrs. Nellie Cooper (third and fourth grade), Mr. Jimmy Joe Sasser (fifth and sixth grade, and a local legend around here), and Mrs. Janice Davis, the librarian and the English/Literature teacher. And my best friend's dad was the principal, Edgar Loftin.

6 factualty

As we walked around the campus, the first thing I saw was the tree. I don't know how old this tree is, but it is at least 50 since I started school when I was 7. It is still there, bent over and stretching its branches protectively over both the drive and play ground. If you take a good run at this tree, you can go right up to the branches along the leaning trunk. I know, I've done it often enough. And in a dress, which resulted in me standing in a corner. You see, I was the only girl in a class of all boys and I did (or tried to do) everything they did, much to the horror of my teachers.

7 the tree

I took Greg on the grand tour and told him all the stories I remembered of classmates, games, catching lizards by the library steps. And then we came to the shop. This is where my Daddy worked the entire time I was in school at Bruno. I spent a lot of time in that shop, both during school and summer vacation. It was a place of safety for me. The place I ran to if I was hurt (which was often as I was a clumsy child) or sad or joyful at achieving a good grade. One of the windows is broken now, and I suddenly smelled motor oil and it all came rushing back. Daddy standing on the bumper of a bus bending over into the motor, wrench in hand. Daddy lying on the dolly with his legs just visible from under the bus. Daddy telling me to get "clear outside" while he swung a newly rebuilt engine over into place.

8 the shop

And then I wondered what other memories are held in this place for so many people. All the teachers who served here. All the students who passed through the rooms. All the fun, the joys, the "trauma" of life as a school child. There is so much to tell, and not enough room to write it.

Sadly in 1973 Bruno was consolidated with Pyatt (one of our rivals) and the doors were closed forever on one of the best schools in the area. Being a Bruno Aggie was the best thing in the world. And I will always be proud to be one.

Something to be Thankful For

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Thanksgiving is here once again. The national day of being thankful. I have so many things to be thankful for: Home, family, lifestyle — all the blessings of a loving God. This year I find myself thankful for all the memories of past Thanksgivings and the people I shared them with.

A large part of my family is gone now. But I can look back on all those Thanksgiving dinners of the past and still feel so thankful for all the good times and the love. I come from Irish stock, so we were very clannish and looked for any reason to gather for food, laughter, and companionship.

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The original clan

I remember the excitement of Thanksgiving morning. Mom gathering up precooked food in her best corning ware dishes, and making sure we were all dressed in our Sunday best. Then off to whomever's turn it was to host the dinner that year. They all took it in turns: all the aunts, cousins, grandparents. We would arrive to park among all the cars crammed into the front yard, and Mom would head for the kitchen where she would find all the women busily cooking, tasting, laying the table, chatting, laughing. Everyone was dressed in their best with fancy aprons only worn on these special occasions. They all looked like Beaver Cleaver's mom, even down to a few stands of pearls.

2 In the Kitchen

The kids, on the other hand, were scattered everywhere. If there was a television set some would be watching the Macy's Day Parade. We had never seen a real parade before and we were glued to the set. The older children would be outside, running, playing games, and climbing trees. The teenagers would either be pressed into service carrying food to the table, or gathered in groups discussing the interests of the day. Sometimes the men and boys would be outside showing each other new guns they had purchased and trying them out. Or perhaps the men would just be gathered chatting, smoking, and whittling.

3 the men

Then dinner was pronounced ready and everyone scrambled for the kitchen. We all stood quietly as the blessing was said, then the children got to fill their plates first. We spread out around the house and sometimes outside to eat picnic-style while the women took plates to the comfort of the living room and the men took the table.

And what a table! Everyone brought their best china to use, and the table literally groaned with food. Nearly all of it was homegrown and homemade. And we usually had one whole table for deserts. We ate until our sides nearly burst. We laughed until we cried. We enjoyed each other and felt warm, loved, and so thankful to be part of this large, noisy family.

smaller family

But, as life goes, the generations began to pass away, and our gatherings became smaller and smaller. We moved farther into the modern age and life became more hectic. And the younger generation married into other families who wanted them to be part of their Thanksgivings and didn't feel comfortable joining our loud and joyful clan. By the time I became a teenager, it was down to just my mother, her brother and sisters. But we still maintained the standard. Best clothes, fancy aprons, best china, table groaning with food, and lots of love and laughter.

4 the siblings

left to right: Mom, sister Freda, brother George, sister Ruby

Sadly those days are gone now. All of us cousins married, had families of our own, and learned to rotate the holidays between two families. Where once you married someone in the community and everyone became family and gathered together, most of us married "new comers" who had other family traditions and weren't used to claiming just anyone as family, no matter how distant, or just because they were the cousin of a cousin of a cousin...

All of my family is gone now except for one cousin, an aunt, and a best friend who was related to all the same people as me, but not related to me. We all have our separate lives and families. But I am still blessed because of the love of my husband's family who have made me one of their own.

5 The McAllister Clan

The McAllister Clan 

This Thanksgiving it will be just us, Greg's dad, his sister and her family, and my children and their families. Greg's brother and family live in Indiana. But it will be the day after Thanksgiving, so my children can spend time with their other families. Thanksgiving day itself will be spent quietly at home with a small meal for just the two of us. But it will be on the best china, and we will still watch the parade, and we will share all of our wonderful memories and be thankful for all things both past and present.

A Hunting We Will Go

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As I've said before, country people live by the seasons, both natural and man-made. Its hunting season here in the Ozarks. One of the favorite times of the year.

I was hunting long before it was really acceptable in my neck of the woods for a girl to hunt. I grew up in the '60s and '70s, and at that time girls were still treated like porcelain dolls. We were not allowed to play baseball, full-court basketball, or any other strenuous sports. And we certainly were not encouraged to hunt! But I was the only child of a wonderful man whose best friend had been his sister. So he taught me all the things he would have taught a son, including how to shoot and hunt. In her younger days, my mother was Daddy's hunting companion, but when I got old enough, I took over the role.

1 Mom  dad

Daddy and Mom with a brace of squirrels

Daddy was a crack shot. He was so good in Army basic training that they wanted to make him a sharp shooter, but he declined. He became an anti-aircraft gunner instead. His first rule of hunting was kill it with one shot. My Daddy loved wildlife and could not stand for anything to be wounded and in pain. He also told me that stray bullets were a dangerous thing. At age 11 he gave me a .22 and told me to learn to bull's-eye every time. Then I could go hunting.

2 Hunting with Daddy

It took me nigh onto a year, but I finally got good enough to satisfy him, and we went on our first squirrel hunt. That's when I learned Daddy's second rule of hunting: Don't kill more than you will eat. We always had excellent hunting dogs (trained by Daddy) and they would hunt squirrels all day. Of course I was carried away by the experience and after we had bagged half a dozen squirrels, I was surprised when Daddy called the dogs and said lets head for home. When I protested, he explained that a good hunter is one who respects the wildlife and never takes more than will be eaten. Then he explained his third rule of hunting: Don't kill it unless you are going to eat it, or unless it is a threat to your livestock.

When we weren't hunting, we would go for walks in the woods, and Daddy showed me borrows and told me what lived there. We looked for nests in trees, tracks on the ground, and he told me the importance of leaving brush piles for things like skunks, and other small "critters" to make a home in.

3 Buddy  Nixon

Besides squirrels, we also hunted rabbits, and Daddy hunted quail. I never shot at quail because the shotgun kicked too hard. We never hunted deer. At that time hunters ran deer with dogs. There was no sitting in a blind or tree stand and patiently waiting. Daddy hated the practice of running deer, and was greatly relieved when it was finally banned in our area.

Daddy was 76 when we went on our last hunting trip. He missed his squirrel and had to kill it on the ground. He stood there just looking at it for a few minutes, then handed me his gun and said “I'm done.” He died a year later from a brain tumor.

4 Dad with gun

I haven't hunted since that time either. My husband is also an excellent shot, but he grew up hunting elk in Colorado, so Arkansas deer just haven't been a challenge to him. But my daughter has carried on the tradition. She and her husband hunt every deer season, and all of their three children have bagged some really nice bucks. They also live by Daddy's hunting rules. Daddy would be pleased.

5 grandkids