A Handful of Mother’s Day Love

“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! (And while I have you, quick apologies for ages 13-21)–PureWow

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As I get ready for work in the morning, I often notice my maternal grandmother’s handkerchief draped over a framed print on a dresser.  It was a gift from my mother several years ago.  Recently, as I took in its gentle embroidery work, I picked it up and sniffed it in a futile attempt to pick up the scent of Helen, my grandmother.

Grandmother, whose scent was a unique blend of Folgers coffee, Avon cream, peppermint, and Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew, was always reassuring.  This morning, I was fatigued and feeling particularly nostalgic as I held Grandmother’s kerchief.  Her scent would have at least provided some small measure of comfort.  Instead, I was left to trace the delicate stitching.  Upon closer inspection, I noticed what appeared to be a stray pencil mark or two and I was taken into the past.

My mind drifted to that fundamentalist, country church of my youth.  I often begged my mom’s permission to sit with Grandmother and Pappaw.  Grandmother’s handbag, the size of a shoebox, was always well-supplied for church services that were sure to be long.  Unclasp the top, and inside, one could find mints, assorted candy, gum, pencils, pens, and old C & O notepads from Papaw’s time of working on the railroad.  While both my grandmother and my mom expected that I stand and hold the hymnal anytime we sang, grandmother permitted me to continue holding the hymnal on my lap as a makeshift desk in order to write, draw, or even play the dot game or hangman with a sibling or cousin–if they were seated with me. In this manner, I was able to remain respectfully quiet, which was also expected by both of my “ruling” women.

If the sermon offered to the attending flock hit a certain emotional note, or if someone sang a special song, such as one originally performed by a popular gospel group at the time, the Happy Goodman Family,  “What a Beautiful Day,” “God Walks the Dark Hills,” or if the congregation simply sang, “Amazing Grace,” I would often see tears stream down Grandmother’s face.  She’d reach in her purse for a handkerchief, dab at her eyes, and continue to hold on to that handkerchief, squeezing it as if her life depended on it.  Looking at the handkerchief, I suddenly remembered with great realism, Grandmother’s strong hands squeezing mine.  It was faint, and then it was gone.

I looked at my own hands.  They are the hands of mother’s and my grandmother’s.  Already, at age 55, they are starting to slightly misshapen from squeezing/holding too tightly onto things.  My fingers, like the women before me, are short and wide–nothing like the Palmolive hand models of long ago commercials. However, like both women, my hands are strong as I am typically better at opening jars and bottle tops than my husband. 

Grandmother’s own hands were strong from years of manual labor.  She single-handedly ran a grocery store and managed/cooked/served for its lunch counter, butchered the store’s meat, maintained and sliced it’s deli cheese and lunch meats while also raising two young boys.  (She would not have my mother until over a decade later.) Later, after my grandparents lost nearly everything in the flood of 1937, they moved to higher ground, left the grocery store business, and Papaw began working exclusively for the railroad.  Grandmother then became a full-time devoted housewife and mother.  Those hands of hers ran a precise schedule for daily, weekly, and annual cleanings, cooking, laundry, ironing, and so forth.  In fact, looking at her handkerchief, I can tell it has been worn thin from repeated washings and ironing.  If there was one thing Grandmother knew how to do well, it was to create a reliable routine and schedule.

“My mother menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it.”–Buddy Hackett

My mom likewise employed her mother’s ability to create a reliable daily structure with my three siblings and me. We got what she cooked (although Grandmother was far more indulgent with her grandkids), and we cleaned with regularity.  In fact, every Saturday we were expected to strip the sheets off our bed, remake our beds with clean sheets, and then dust/sweep our bedrooms.  Later, when we were older, we were also assigned another room in the house to likewise clean on Saturday.  It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized very few of my friends had the same expectations!  In fact, one of my sister’s friends once shared, years later, that she drew inspiration from my mom’s Saturday schedule when raising her own children.

“I especially loved that when I spent the night with your sister, one of the siblings had to pick up her chore for that morning.”

In Grandmother’s daily routine, and later,  in Mom’s schedule, there was also set aside time for rest and relaxation.  You worked hard, when it was time to work, but likewise there was built in time for reading, relaxing, and rest. Grandmother’s house, and later my own childhood home, was filled with books, magazines, and, of course, several bibles.  Perhaps, it was because Grandmother’s 8th grade education bothered her, even though she was more educated than Papaw, reading was especially important to Grandmother, hence reading was also important to my own childhood home.

Recently, my mom has spent a good deal of time talking with me about her church.  She states that one of her friends at church loves Vestal Goodman, and all the rest of the Happy Goodman Family, whose songs were frequently sung at my Grandmother’s church.  Mom additionally has played Facebook videos of the church pianist who performs the ol’ time gospel tunes of Grandmother’s long ago church, and praises the pastor who knows how to touch her both intellectually and spiritually.  I can’t help but be reminded of Grandmother and secretly wonder if my mom carries a hanky to church too.

Preparing to write this piece, I clicked through a few youtube videos of the Happy Goodman Family, remembering their albums echoing through my grandparents house as Grandmother dusted and swept.  It wasn’t until I paused long enough for the entirety of “God Walks The Dark Hills,” that I noticed that Vestal was holding a handkerchief. As I clicked back through previously viewed videos, Vestal indeed was holding a hanky in each one!  I walked back to my bedroom and once more to pick up Grandmother’s delicate hanky.  Holding Grandmother’s handkerchief, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I saw both my mom’s and grandmother’s faces staring back at me.  

“It’s not how many years we live, but what we do with them.  It’s now what we receive, but what we give unto others.”–written by my grandmother, Helen Slater, on November 13, 1957 in my mother’s autograph book

Grandmother Helen, thanks for the “handy” reminder of the importance of faith, family, and all of those intangibles that I once took for granted.  Even now, you’re still giving me a hand. If you can see me in heaven, I’m sending you a hand-ful of gratitude on this coming Mother’s Day.  

And, Mom, I know that I was a hand-ful, so I’m especially sending you these words of Mother’s Day appreciation along with much love. You taught me not to start a sentence with “and,” but you know I often struggled with obedience.

P. S. This quote is for you, Mom . . .

“When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no.  You’re going to get it anyway.”–Erma Bombeck

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It Starts with One Seed

“In this earth, 

In this soil, 

In this pure field

Let’s not plant 

Any seeds 

Other than seeds of compassion

and Love–Rumi

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While it’s nerdy to admit this, my husband and I love shows about nature, with PBS’s Nature among one of favorites.  Go ahead, make fun of us, or roll your eyes. We teach middle schooler students; we can take it! 

Recently, an episode of Nature featured animals who survive on the highest and most extreme terrain of the Alps.  While you may continue to giggle and guffaw at our choice of entertainment, this episode fed our minds with its breathtaking cinematography of an extraordinary landscape and the unique variety of animals adapted to the Alpine mountain climate, including the chamois, ibex, marmot, golden eagle, and the spotted nutcracker.  It was while the narrator and filming focused on the nutcracker scene that, shall I say, planted a seed.

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In the Alpine world, the Swiss stone pine exists, thanks in large part to the work of the spotted nutcracker. The nutcracker relies on the seeds of the Swiss stone pine for food.  Even though this tree only produces seeds between the months of August and October, this bird is able to survive year ‘round in the harsh conditions of the Alpine climate because of its ability to stockpile these seeds in a wide variety of locations and remember their hiding spots. The birds’ naturally seem to select places that prevent their collection from being stolen by scavengers.  Interestingly, these carefully selected locations are also less likely to support seed germination–at least for a several months.  Thus, these hidden seed-pantries enable the spotted nutcracker to eat year ‘round, including feeding its young in the spring.

Fortunately, for the Swiss stone pine, it can live for as many as 500 years–which works in the favor for both the tree and spotted nutcracker.  In fact, even if only one to two seeds per year from the nutcracker’s hidden caches remain uneaten, and therefore germinate, it is enough to keep the tree viable for hundreds of years.  Thus, making this symbiotic relationship an ideal partnership for the continuation of both species.

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“Keep on sowing your seed, for you never know which will grow—perhaps it all will.”–Ecclesiastes 11:6 TLB

One seed.  Hidden, dropped, or lost–dormantly remains idle until the conditions change.

One seed.  Full of potential–enough energy to fuel the growth of a new seedling.

One seed.  Serendipity–precise temperature, water, oxygen, light.

One seed. Free to break through its hardened shell and begin growing.

From one seed of the Swiss stone pine, a root first forms, followed by a shoot that will grow into its stems, branches, and needles.  Over the years, as the seedling extends into maturity, the tree will endure countless challenges throughout the entirety of its life. From strong winds to Alpine avalanches, from temperatures well below freezing (think -30 to -40 degrees) to extremely warm temperatures, from blizzard conditions to summer storms, and all conditions in between, this tree finds a way to persevere for hundreds of years.  

However, the Swiss stone pine does not survive all those hundreds of years without breakage. In fact, the trunk of this tree is so brittle that its top may be repeatedly broken off in harsh conditions.  Despite its brokenness, it continues to grow and produce seeds that are editable–not only for the nutcracker, but also for other birds, animals, and even human consumption.

Often referred to as the “Queen of the Alps,” the Swiss stone pine survives its brokenness and storms by forming lateral shoots that often resprout in response to the weather conditions.  Furthermore, the nutcracker typically only consumes about 80% of the Swiss stone pine seeds it hoards.  Therefore, thanks in large part to the work of the nutcracker, groups of seeds often germinate together in one spot, and the numerous trees sprout together.  What often appears as one tree with multiple trunks are actually several trees growing together in one root system. Additionally, even if the nutcracker–or for that matter, other creatures– would happen to eat all of the trees’ seeds for several seasons in a row, the Swiss stone pine’s seed cycle includes a mast season, every four or five years, producing so great a quantity of seeds that it would be impossible for all of its seeds to be consumed. Thus, ensuring the tree’s survival, but also the survival of any Alpine creature who may rely on this tree for shelter or food, such as the spotted nutcracker.

One seed. One tree. One bird.  Watch the ripples expand.

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We can’t change people, but we may plant seeds that may one day bloom in them.”–Mary Davis

Reflecting upon this unique symbiotic relationship, I was reminded of our own human to human interactions.  From day to day, month to month, and from year to year, imagine the seeds each human being can potentially plant.  Many of these seeds foster our own well being and the well being of others as we cultivate friendships and relationships for the mutual benefit of all involved.  These relationships eventually sprout into new families and new friend groups. 

Furthermore, seeds planted with coworkers, neighbors, professionals with whom we regularly interact, as well as complete strangers, can germinate ideas, thoughts, and other notions that, one day, may benefit that person.  From the compassionate gesture of helping a complete stranger to private gestures of kindness unseen or unheard by those benefiting, from one tender word of encouragement to one empathetic ear ready to listen, we all have the ability to sow seeds wherever we go.

Even when we are broken by the squalls, obstacles, and difficulties of life, through the rooted and interconnected relationships of our germinated seeds, we can find the strength to rise again.  In conditions ranging from the most arid to emotionally drowning episodes, from the frozen heart to impassioned flare of tempers, it is our propagation of seeds that comes back to us again and again, making us more resilient, more strong, and ultimately able to persevere, allowing us to continue to produce even more seeds

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One positive word. One helpful deed. One encouraging smile.  Seeds are planted.  Perhaps, they remain dormant in the recipient’s being for days, weeks, months, even years.  Nonetheless, one moment, under the right circumstance, that seed will take root, sprout, and soon enough branches and roots systems, like Swiss stone pine trees, will expand over the mountains of time.  You may not see it, but your one choice, your one act, repeated throughout your life, may create a forest from which many will be nourished and find shelter. 

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”–Robert Louis Stevenson