Not Just a ‘Writer’

I’m not just a writer.  I’m a storyteller.  I started telling stories before I learned my alphabet.  Once I discovered how to read and write, I learned that I could write something on paper and I could show it to others who had not heard me tell the story.  But writing my stories came later when my family could afford the extra paper and pencils.  Poverty sucks.

When I was a child, I was very introverted.  My family members were the only people I could tell my stories to.  When I was in elementary school, recess was an ordeal of loneliness until I started worldbuilding in my head.  It took a while to realize I was interacting with my imaginary world.  I would come out of it to see the other children staring at me.  I had been walking around, miming various actions and moving my mouth silently.  Finally one of them asked me what I was doing, and I began telling him about the sandwich factory I had built.  For some reason – hunger, maybe? – I was fascinated by the thought of automated assembly lines surrounded by machines slicing and stacking and wrapping meat and cheese sandwiches.  I had never seen an assembly line, but I guess we had been studying something on the subject.  Where were all the sandwiches going? I didn’t know and didn’t care.  It was the process that fascinated me.

The other kids thought I was nuts, but they began talking to me more, and I slowly made friends.  It helped me get through school.  Then we moved, and I had to make new friends. Since I was still introverted, it was difficult.  In the fifth grade, our English teacher discovered I had written a story.  I think it was about a horse since she had been reading a chapter a day from a novel about a horse to the class.  My story had several chapters as well, and she read a chapter of it every day to the class.  They did not seem impressed.  But they were happy they did not have to face a quiz about it, so I got no criticism.

I continued writing, the plots changing as I aged.  In the tenth grade, I was writing a teenage romance.  I had a thick spiral notebook dedicated to it.  A couple of weeks before the end of school, our history class teacher had pretty much finished everything on his curriculum and just told us to keep it quiet during class.  I immediately hauled out my notebook and began writing on my story.  The seat to my left was filled by a hulking football player.  He was a nice guy, but physically imposing.  I didn’t realize he was reading the page I was writing until I filled the page and started to turn to the next with my left hand.  He pinned my hand to the desk and leaned over.

I was speechless with shock and mortified by the immediate teasing coming from his friends behind us.  He ignored them and me and finished reading the page.  Then, still silent, he took the notebook away from me, flipped the pages to the story’s beginning, and read the whole thing.  I sat there too terrified to protest.  Luckily he caught up before the end of class.  I had no idea whether he’d let me have it back.  I had no idea what he was thinking as he read it.  It was a teen romance, written by a girl who had never had a boyfriend.  Would he make fun of me? Would he tell me it was trash?  Would he think it was about him?  It wasn’t, but would he be able to tell?

Just before class ended, he finished and handed the notebook back.  He looked at me, a warning clear in his expression.  “Finish it before school is out for the summer,” he said. “I want to read the end of it.”  He got up and left the room, still majestically ignoring his friends as they swarmed after him, demanding to know why he had held hands with me and then read my notebook.  I finished the story.  I did NOT want to find out what would happen if I didn’t.  After he finished it on the last day of school, he finally announced his opinion of it.  “A good story,” he said with an approving nod.  Nothing else, but I didn’t need anything else.

I lost my introverted nature over the next few years, but I never lost my love of story telling.  I wrote stories, I wrote poetry, I wrote songs.  I sent two books to publishers, and the editor told me that the beta readers had really liked them, but it wasn’t quite what the publishers really wanted at the moment.  I had learned about genre publishing by then, so I wasn’t surprised, but I was glad the beta readers had all liked my work.

One day I got the chance to have a science fiction/fantasy work of mine critiqued by a couple of professional writers and several amateurs as part of a science fiction convention.  You paid a fee, you sent in a chapter or short story, and received a copy of their work for you to critique.  I was always taught that if you need to offer criticism, make it constructive or leave it alone.  I learned that not everybody felt that way.

Science fiction and fantasy is such a broad genre most people have their own preferences for a certain kind.  Some have strong likes and dislikes of certain subjects.  At our session, we were supposed to go around the table, offering our critiques of one writer at a time.  The writer under the microscope was not allowed to argue with someone’s opinion, or defend their writing, or even speak until the end.  When mine came up, one amateur writer hated the whole story because it was based on a parallel world.  I didn’t worry about his opinion because that was his only criticism.  He just didn’t like parallel worlds, so he blew off the whole story.  Another young man loved my story.  He told me he couldn’t wait to read the rest of it.  I’m hoping to finally get that thing published soon, so maybe, wherever he is out there, he’ll be able to.

The other amateur writers were more focused on the technical aspects, like grammar and punctuation, and didn’t really have much to say about the story itself.  My work had been totally different from theirs, so I wasn’t surprised.  Then one of the pro writers, a white middle-class suburban mom type, complained that my characters were not believable.  “A teenage prostitute?  Where were her parents?”  Yes, she said that.  Everybody stared at her for a minute, and she looked like she couldn’t figure out why.  I don’t even remember the rest of what she said, I was so flabbergasted by that naive remark.

The other professional writer was a Canadian who wrote urban punk fantasy.  He tore my story to shreds, slapping the manuscript copy on the table.  “Nobody talks like that!” he snapped, and proceeded to vigorously point out how terrible everything else was in my story.  I was speechless about that, too.  Everyone looked vaguely embarrassed as he wound up.  When he was finished and I was allowed to speak to all of their critiques, I just smiled at him and told him I’d work on the dialogue.  I was from the rural southern United States, and he was an urban Canadian with a teenage daughter.  Maybe he didn’t get to listen to the kind of conversations I listened to.  I ignored everything else he said since it sounded like opinion, which didn’t worry me.  I was just pleased that one young man, who was my target audience for that story, really liked it.  That meant I had done it right.

I have had other comments since on many different stories I have written.  One lady told me about one story that she laughed and then she cried and then laughed again.  I said good because I had as well while I was writing it.  One lady told my church that she had not finished one of my books yet, but felt that it had changed her life, and urged all of them to read it.  Whoa!  I’m not sure I meant to do that, but she seemed happier, so I was glad.

Strong ego?  You bet.  I love to read what I write.  I like getting good reviews, but bad ones don’t bother me.  I may have to publish my own books, and I don’t make money at it yet, but I’m enjoying myself.  I get to tell stories, and that’s all I want to do.

Conversations With God

I had an interesting conversation with God the other day.  No, not a prayer.  I have conversations – you know, the kind where I say something, He says something, I say something…

People often give me a funny look when I say God talks to me, as if they expect me to start waving a sign saying stuff like “Prepare to meet thy Doom!” or something.  Nah.  The folks at my small church gave me that look when I first joined them, but since I’m a cheerful sort and often have humorous conversations with God that I remark on, they’ve relaxed.

I’ve had these conversations for as long as I can remember.  My parents, bless their hearts, just nodded and said stuff like, “How interesting.”  They were used to my storytelling, which started about the same time, and they might have thought that was just another story.  But it’s not fiction to me.  To me, God’s voice is as real as my mother’s, more trustworthy than anybody I know, and I never have to ask Him to speak up, stop mumbling, or clarify whether something He said was sarcasm or a joke.

A little girl, hearing me say God told me something, asked what God sounded like.  “Ever had a friend stand behind you and say something over your shoulder?” I asked her.  “He sounds just like that.  You don’t see Him, but you can hear him clearly.  You know His voice because you hear Him all the time. That’s what He sounds like.”

Some people say God speaks to them through the Bible, others say they have visions.  That happens to me, too, but I also get the audio version, which is better for me, since I can ask questions and get immediate answers.  I don’t always LIKE the answers, and sometimes He tells me my brain doesn’t have the words to understand the answer.  Like calculus, I guess.  I still don’t get that, either.  Algebra barely got through.

The conversation I had the other day was fairly typical.  He’s never really been able to get me to learn two things: self discipline and patience.  Especially patience.  Ever heard that old joke?  “Give me patience, NOW!”  That’s me.  My sister and I were cleaning all the Christmas decorations out of the house and putting them back into storage for another year.  We got the storage bins out of the storage building outside, filled them up, opened the door to take them back to the storage, and discovered a downpour occurring.

“Come on, God, give us a break!” I complained.  “Cut the rain off for just half an hour, can’t You?  Just give us enough time to get these boxes back into the storage building and You can let it rain all the rest of the day!  What do You say?” No response, and the rain just seemed to come down harder.  A couple of minutes passed, and finally my sister and I both shrugged.  We’re not sweet enough to melt in the rain, after all.

We lugged the plastic bins out of the house and into the storage building, getting incredibly soaked in the process, and no, we didn’t melt.  But just as I shut the storage building door and locked it, the rain stopped.  Perfectly timed.  I shook my fist at the sky.  “God, that’s not funny!” I shouted.  My sister just shook her head and laughed.  But God replied quite clearly.

“No, it’s not funny,” He agreed, sounding annoyed.  “If you had shown enough faith to wait a mere ten minutes, you would have been completely dry, wouldn’t you?”

I hate it when He makes a point so true I can’t argue.

A lot of the writing I do is at His order.  For instance, I’ve never been much into angels.  I just never paid much attention to the subject, other than the mentions of them in Bible stories.  But when I started writing a Christmas story for the Sunday School teachers in my church every year (I’m the Sunday School director) I discovered there were angels in every story, and so when I published the first collection of Christmas stories “Once Upon A Christmastime” I put an angel on the cover.  “Standing Next To A Miracle”, my second collection of short stories, is about the people who were friends and family of the people in Bible stories of miracles, but my third collection, coming out shortly (I’m planning, anyway) is all about angels.  “Angels With Attitude” it will be called.

I wasn’t planning on writing anything like any of these short stories.  I was planning to be a novelist, and already had a long list of novels I was planning to write as soon as I retired and finally got the time to sit back and pound the keyboard.  But when I finally do, what comes out?  Short stories about angels and Bible characters.  Huh.  I never know what will emerge.  I’m quite often surprised.  I usually can’t remember them, so I have to go back and reread them for myself.  I only half-jokingly remarked to my church members that I was ghostwriting for God.

This past Christmas was a hard one for our church.  Our church treasurer and a dear friend to many died of illness.  At her funeral we discovered a young man who had grown up in our church had died in an accident on his way back to his parents’ home the night before.  It was during his funeral a few days later that God spoke to me.  I never know until just before Christmas what the gift story will be about.   I always just wait for inspiration to strike, find stuff to go into gift bags that goes with the story, and type like mad when it hits.  But this time I got it during the funeral, and I was appalled.

You see, there was a story I had been planning to write for the “Angels With Attitude” collection, but I hadn’t got it on my computer yet.  God told me this story would be my Christmas gift.  I didn’t want to put it in a Christmas gift.  It’s a good story (I believe) but horribly inappropriate for any member of my church at Christmastime during our grief.  I was even more appalled when I discovered a short while later that the husband of one of the Sunday School teachers had just been diagnosed with a nasty form of cancer.

The story, you see, is about an angel of death (yeah, not THE angel of death – he explains it in the story) appearing to a young cancer patient.  I argued fiercely with God.  Okay, not argued; protested is really the correct word, since argument is a two way arrangement.  God doesn’t bother to argue.  You do it His way, or face the consequences.  What happens to me is I am placed under unction.  I heard that phrase once and thought it sounded appropriate, since that’s the sound I make: “Unnnn!”  Essentially, that means since I agreed a long time ago to do what He tells me to do, He’s going to keep nagging me until I do it.  In the Bible they called it anointing.  Wonder if any of those anointed folk felt like going “Unnn!”

He got His way, of course, but I added a letter outside the story to tell the teachers not to blame me for the story.  Apparently, God thought it was necessary for SOMEBODY to read it, so there it went.  I haven’t heard from any of them yet.  Maybe I’ll put an excerpt on my website and see what everybody else thinks of it.  Buy the book to read the whole thing.  Or look up one of the teachers I gave it to.  They might let you borrow it.  But I’d rather you buy the book.  You’ll like the other stories, too.  God said so.

Update: Just heard from a relative of the young man whose funeral I attended.  She said the story helped break her from her deep well of grief and begin to live again.  Whew!  Never try to second guess God.  I’ve learned to just ask to see the results of acting on His orders once in a while.  Got to get this third book published.

 

A Veteran’s View

I’m not the veteran I’m talking about this Veteran’s Day.  I never got to serve in the military thanks to my physical health.  Several other members of my family did, but the one I’m talking about here is my dad, William Almas Perry.  Born March 4, 1926, he was at the right age to join the military during World War II.

He rarely spoke at all about his service, mentioning to his young daughters only that he had served in the Philippines and in England.  “But what did you do in the war, Daddy?” we pressed one day, probably on a Veteran’s Day.  He shut us down quickly with “I picked up dead people” and walked away, leaving us with the horrific mental scene of a battlefield filled with bodies.

It was not until his funeral and afterwards many decades later that we learned the truth.  His “I picked up dead bodies” was what he did after the war while finishing his service in England as an ambulance driver for the military.  He just didn’t want to talk about what he did in the Philippines.  We heard about that from the veterans who had gone to war with him, from the same small town, who had known him as a boy and a man.

My father, like many country boys who had to catch their own food, was a dead shot with a rifle and had a hunter’s keen eye for his prey.  The army chose him to save the lives of many of his fellow soldiers by sending him into the jungles of the islands first and taking out the enemy snipers waiting for them.  The fact that he came back alive is proof of how good he was at his job.  The fact that I never saw him use a gun in anything but a demonstration to my brother in law of his military shooting pose and his continued ability to hit a bulls-eye was proof of how his service affected him.

After his death, one of his many cousins gave us a couple of poems he had sent back to his mother during his service that she had sent to the newspaper for printing.  The exact dates of the writing are uncertain, but they were both written during the war.  She told us that there were more, but until more of the old newspapers are scanned into the computer and I can look them up, these are the only two I have.

 

OBJECTIVE – HOME!

By PFC William A. Perry, United States Army

O God, I did not

Come out to this war

From a park bench,

Or from a rented room.

I came from HOME!

And I brought with me family words:

Garden, crib, fireside, front door,

Wife, little fellow.

Now they are all mixed in

With the war jargon:

Jeep, tank, foxhole,

Tommy gun, blitz.

Help me, God, to keep

My thinking straight.

Grant the impossible –

Make home – our Home –

Seem real in battle.

Show me how to

Sort out my thoughts

And use the words about home;

Even when I am sitting in a swamp

Hours at a time,

Not daring to move

More than my eyes;

They’ll keep me sane.

I’ll be a better human,

And just now,

When fighting is my job,

I want to stay human.

It didn’t take a war

To show me

How I love my home.

But it has taken a war

To show me

How it will feel to

Walk out from Hell

Straight to a Paradise

That men call Home!

O God, let ours rest

Under the shadow of Your hands.

 

MY BUDDY

by PFC William A. Perry, United States Army

Hit again! That’s twice today;

Why don’t they get it over

And blast me all away?

Feeling mighty weary,

Losin’ all my stuff.

Buried in a foxhole –

That’s what I call tough.

Ain’t got strength to wiggle,

Must be awful weak.

Tongue is just one big blister;

I can hardly speak.

I’m no Christian soldier,

Never had the luck.

Just a no-good drifter,

Just a fighting buck.

Never had no learnin’

Never taught to pray.

Want to talk to Jesus –

Don’t know what to say.

Where’d you come from, Buddy?

Wasn’t here before.

Don’t look like no soldier,

You ain’t used to war.

Wanna use my foxhole?

Cuddle up right nice;

Have a drink of water –

Sorry, there’s no ice.

Gee, your hand is bleedin’

Guess they got you, too.

Nasty rats of Hitler,

That’s the way they do.

You and me together

Strangers in this sink;

Sharing drops of water,

All there is to drink.

What’s that on your shoulder?

Buddy, that’s no gun!

You should have some weapon –

War ain’t just clean fun.

Guess that blasted bullet

Threw me for a loss.

Eyes are getting hazy;

What you got, a cross?

Funny sort of helmet,

Looks just like a thorn.

Never seen one like it,

Never, since I’s born.

Aw, your head is bleedin’,

Let me wipe your brow.

I got strength to do it –

Strong as ever, now.

Say, you tryin’ to help me?

Well, that ain’t no use –

I’m beyond all helpin’;

Took too much abuse.

Still it makes me better

Just to know you’re here;

Yeah, I know I’m dying,

But I got no fear.

Crown of thorns and cross?

Golly, I remember –

You’re the King! The boss!

Thought I was unlucky –

All I’ve sacrificed;

But I’m dying happy

In the arms of Christ.

I’m a Christian soldier.

Got no pain, no grief.

Take me up to Heaven

Like you took the thief.

Jesus, gentle Jesus,

Got no pain, no fear.

Hidin’ in a foxhole,

And you found me here.

A SLICE OF AMERICAN LIFE

A few days ago I enjoyed a weekend experiencing that staple of small town Americana, the high school Homecoming.  For those who have never seen various movies or grew up in large urban areas or have never lived in the United States, let me explain.

In most small towns large enough to have a high school and a football team, they hold an annual celebration called a Homecoming, where alumni who remember their high school days fondly (or wonder about their classmates’ lives in the years between graduation and the present) gather back together for a day or two.  A pep rally is held to cheer for the football team and raise enthusiasm for the following game.  The alumni are recognized.  There is usually a parade at some point with groups of alumni creating and riding in floats, on trailers, or sometimes just vehicles.

I graduated from a town in north Texas named Rising Star.  There were 21 in my graduating class as I recall (haven’t located my yearbook yet), and at least two of them were juniors who took extra classes to get the necessary credits to graduate a year ahead.  The entire high school had a total of about 100 students the year I graduated.  We were so small that during the field and track season, there were only about three students who were not involved in the various events.  I was one of them.  We would spend the entire day in study hall with one teacher when the track meets were held out of town.

In a town this small, football is a huge deal.  Homecoming weekend is pretty much the biggest deal of the year, except for perhaps the Halloween school carnival.  People who have been away for decades come back for it. The representative for our class who went to the alumni business meeting  (yes, they have those) said they had started a roll call of alumni classes with the 2015 graduating class, and she finally left when they reached 1948, and were still going.

I graduated in 1976.  Forty years I’ve been away, and this was the first time I had made it back for a Homecoming even though I lived only four hours away.  Why so long?  Mostly, I think, I was so busy living my life I wasn’t really curious about my classmates, and hadn’t really been involved in the town or the school in the two years I spent there before I graduated.

Now, however, I’m retired, and thanks to social media and the enthusiasm of classmates who did want to gather, I decided to go.  About half the class was able to make it, one even despite nearly dying in an auto accident in August.  Several classmates still lived there in the still very small town and one was even a businessman and city council member.  (Still shaking my head over that, Johnny.  You, a politician?)

I had a terrific time, I have to admit, and also have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.  My sister had gone to her graduating class’ Homecoming several years before and was not inclined to ever repeat it.  She went with me only to provide transportation and get away for a weekend and figured she would get in a good amount of reading while I socialized.

She forgot that, even though she graduated from a different school after our family moved following my graduation, she had gone to Rising Star’s junior high school with the younger siblings of my classmates.  Since she has an incredible memory, she remembered them. Once she started asking my classmates about them, she found herself caught up in regular conversation and never did get to her reading until we were back at our hotel.

I was having a great time, too.  I wasn’t so much interested in nostalgic memories, since I spent the two years I’d been in school there working when I wasn’t in class, and had zero interest in sports of any kind, so I had rarely been to any of the games.  I had not socialized much due to my work hours and mostly remembered my classmates from our time in classes.

I was fascinated by how they had spent the years between, and how their lives had turned out.  I had never been able to use the scholarship I had been awarded for an out of state college, but had wound up accomplishing more in my career than I had ever dreamed I would and had done the things I had always wanted to, like writing nationally read published works (training material and procedural manuals, but hey, they made life easier for a lot of people).

I was delighted to find several of my classmates had become teachers.  I figured that had made our class sponsor, our English teacher, laugh really hard after the hard time we gave her.  (Sorry, Mrs. Burns, if I ever made you gnash your teeth!)  Some of us had gone into the medical field.  Some, like Johnny, had become businessmen and women.  Some had become civil servants like myself.  One had become a pastor (yeah, still shaking my head over that one, too, Clark).

Most of us had gone through health problems, several of us with breast cancer.  We lost some classmates to accidents, and even one to an unsolved murder.  One we had even more sadly lost to suicide.  Like many small towns, some of those had been family members and the mourning was doubled.

It was, in the end, the kind of family reunion you wished you could always go to, where the conversation flowed freely as well as the laughter, many hugs were exchanged, experiences were gasped and laughed over, and good food was shared.  Old pictures and news clippings were pored over.  There were no snide remarks made, no sniping at each other, or ugly memories recalled (at least not in my hearing).  I was, again, in awe of people like Tami and Denise and Brenda and Marilyn (okay, I need to quit), who could remember everything that happened to EVERYBODY. I can’t remember what happened to me half the time.

We joined together enthusiastically just as we had those decades ago for the pep rally, the football game, and for decorating our cars and riding them in the very short parade, waving madly at the townspeople who lined the single street we went down. (Note to self: anytime a parade is even mentioned in passing, get a big bag of small candies to throw to the kids, just in case you get to be in it.  It’s important!)

After the parade, we joined one last time in cleaning up what we could before we had to rush back to south Texas.  (Sorry, Brenda, I know we probably should have done more!)  It was hard saying goodbye, but my sister took many photographs, and that will help.  As we all agreed, social media is great for staying in touch, and hopefully we will see each other before we’re too old to enjoy it again.

So, here’s hoping life will get even better for you guys, as I hope it will for me.  I was so glad to see you again, Bonnie, Brenda, Robert, Tami, Denise, Marilyn, Marion, Johnny, Teco, Susan, Nancy, Kim, and others whose names I cannot remember (sorry, I totally blame the chemo!) but thoroughly enjoyed meeting.  I asked my sister to check my list of names since her memory is better, but this was the best I could do.  And for any of you who weren’t there, yeah, of course we talked about you, but at least we didn’t nominate you for a committee!

Time marches on, the saying goes, and sometimes it marches in a great direction, leading folks back to each other.  I’m looking forward to having it circle around again. Thanks for the memories, as Bob Hope liked to say.  Love you all.

Surviving Mother Nature

As I sit and watch the news, most of it is about the weather.  It gives me great pleasure and gratitude that I am in a very small area of the United States that has survived the current blast of winter weather afflicting the rest of the nation with barely any damage.  But everybody else – hooboy!  For all who don’t recognize the term, ‘hooboy!’ is an exclamation pretty much equivalent to ‘OMG!’.

I have been through forest fires before aerial support was available and blizzards with only a wood stove and been caught in flash floods in pitch black darkness.  I remember walking across a parking lot in Austin, Texas on a day when the wind began gusting to speeds I had never known, and it lifted me off my feet for a few terrifying seconds.  I’ve survived tornadoes, hurricanes, and blistering heat that took away my breath.

I’ve been grateful that Winter Storm Goliath (I just love that they’ve started naming them like hurricanes) has pretty much just left my area with a glancing blow.  The places I used to live were not so lucky.  I lost a cousin several years ago when he was a lineman trying to help Oklahoma blizzard victims get their power lines back up, and now Oklahoma is suffering again.  I’ve been praying for those volunteers trying to get the power restored for them.

One of my Facebook friends just posted that the local emergency alert system posted a warning about a freezing fog.  I used to live in his area, and I’m glad I no longer do, because – hooboy, again – does that bring back a memory!

When I was a girl we lived in the Ozarks in Missouri. One year while we were out of school during Christmas vacation, it became very warm. It stayed warm long enough for the dormant trees to have their sap start rising and flowers start blooming. It was like late spring and everyone enjoyed it thoroughly.

In those days before weather apps and satellites and accurate weather reports, families, farmers, and everybody else was caught by surprise and shock when, after a heavy warm fog descended and lingered for a day or so, the temperature crashed to below freezing. Way below freezing. We lived in the country up in the hills in heavy woods. We awoke to what sounded like a war outside.

Since our home was heated by a wood stove, it was also cold. While dad swiftly lit a fire that had been unnecessary for quite a while, we tried to rub the windows clear only to find the ice was all over the outside. The explosions and cracks and snaps were the tree branches exploding as the sap suddenly froze and expanded.  Tree limbs of all sizes were fragmented and sent flying through the air. 

The first thing we had noticed on getting out of bed was the lack of electricity.  Sure enough, the ice had coagulated on the power lines and brought them down.  My dad struggled outside after the trees quieted and looked around as best he could.  He reported when he returned that there was about an inch of ice on everything.  

We weren’t able to find out how the rest of the area was faring until the freeze thawed and the population was able to get around some, and the power was restored to our non battery radios and television.  We knew it was dire enough where we were, since we had to constantly struggle to get to our wood supply and bring it in, and worse yet, find a way to get water.  Our water came from an underground water supply that required an electric pump to bring it into the house.

So did all our neighbors, except for an elderly couple living a couple of hills away.  They still had an old fashioned hand pump water system.  Our dad joined all the other men on our road slipping and sliding their way to the couple’s house carrying what they could to haul water.  They had to walk, because vehicles could not handle the ice at all.

The cold was intense.  My sisters and I joined together in one old iron framed bed, just large enough to hold two girls at the top and two at the bottom, and my youngest sister, barely a toddler, stayed warm between our parents in their bed.  We huddled around the stove in the living room when we were forced to get up long enough to eat.  Our small home had been built before insulation, and was drafty.  Going to the bathroom was unpleasant, and we ignored personal hygiene until we had water again.  But we had it good, considering what others had to deal with.

Remember me saying that farmers were taken by surprise, too?  Our area of the Ozarks was farm country.  Lots of dairy cattle, beef, horses, chickens, livestock and pets of all kinds were out in the fields and yards enjoying the warm weather.  They stayed out in the fog, because who worried about a little water?  The cattle were almost all lying down, probably chewing their cuds and enjoying the warm ground, when the temperature dropped.

Horror stories emerged as the news began to filter to us.  Farmers awoke to the screams of their animals as the creatures tried to rise from the ground, only to discover the heavy ice now coating them had frozen their milk bags to the ground, and their lurching attempts to rise had torn their milk bags open and ripped the hide from their bellies.  Hundreds of animals had to be put down in the fields that first morning, then their carcasses disposed of after the farmers’ tractors could finally find purchase on the ice.  My gym teacher had to put her mare’s new foal down after she found it had tried to leap to its feet and ripped its hooves off.

Because of the extensive damage to the power lines, the dairy farmers who had surviving cattle had to milk by hand and soon found themselves unable to deal with the cows who were loudly expressing their pain as their milk bags distended without relief.  They called on the local agricultural agents for help, and generators were finally discovered and flown in from all over to power their milking machines.

All the children my age were affected (some to their delight) when it was discovered the sudden freeze had broken the school’s steam heating system that had been shut down over Christmas vacation, but not drained.  New parts were brought in, only to freeze and break before the steam heating could beat back the intense cold.  We had to go to school through June that year to make up for the time we lost in January.  That was no fun, since our school had no air conditioning.

It was a rough winter, but the lessons lingered.  Work together with family and friends.  Know your neighbors.  We always have water stored, and a way to keep warm no matter what heating system our house has.  I don’t understand people who have all electric homes and apartments.  Always have food that doesn’t have to be cooked, and keep the freezers full so the foods can keep themselves cold in there.  Have a way to light the house in the absence of electricity, and very importantly, have a way to pass the time without computer, television, video games, or recharging smart phones.  Keep the gas tanks full in the vehicles and bug out bags prepared in case of evacuation.  Those lessons have got my family through bad weather, and bad times, of all kinds.

My prayers go out for all the travelers trying to get home, the homebound worrying about food supplies, warmth, and water, and the professionals trying to bring them relief.  I pray for the law officers like my nephew in law, the truckers like my relatives, and the commuters like my sister.  I pray for us all, and pray that you find it in your hearts to help where you can, and find help where and when you need it.

 

Saving the Potential

There is a song called “Do Something” written and sung by Matthew West.  It is a contemporary Christian song about how we should stop complaining about the state of the world and do something about it.  I was reminded of it last Saturday when our local Baptist Association’s Women on Mission organization hosted a WorldCrafts bazaar.  WorldCrafts (http://www.worldcrafts.org) is a division of Women’s Missionary Union, part of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Say what you will about large religious organizations, WorldCrafts is a great idea.

The whole point of WorldCrafts is the realization of that old saying “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, feed him for life.”  Poverty, famine, war, and various other unpleasant situations are rampant around the world, including here in the United States.  But there is something else also rampant – potential.  The potential for creativity, for making something out of nothing is found in the same places.

It’s easy to throw money at a problem and assume somebody will take care of the unpleasantness, leaving us to kick our feet up in our favorite recliner and settle down to our favorite sitcoms and ball games, feeling righteous at having done our duty.  But what happens when the economy tanks and we can’t donate anymore?  Those who were receiving all that food (if the money or food wasn’t being stolen or mishandled) are suddenly left hanging in the wind.

It also doesn’t cover the problem of shelter, clothing, health, education, and transportation.  It is only maintaining an unpleasant situation, like feeding refugees in a tent city.  But suppose the impoverished and destitute could start a business, creating a product they could sell worldwide and make enough money to buy their own food, buy transportation, buy a house, buy clothing, and employ others, who could do the same?  Suddenly, you have an economy, a growing economy that raises a community and allows growth.  You have potential at work.

WorldCrafts is a remarkable organization that takes potential and develops it, raising the living standard of not only individuals, not only families, but eventually whole communities.  It takes those who were without hope and help and makes them self sufficient.  Many of the participants are women, simply because there are so many of them who are helpless and hopeless, single mothers who have lost their husbands to war or disease, as well as many who are rescued from the sex trade.  They have no education, no transportation, no way to grow their own food, and frequently not even a home.  There are many youth who have no future, many crippled and maimed by war and disease, and men who cannot find employment in the areas where they are.

The organizers of WorldCrafts try to find products these people can make and sell.  They bring together people willing to donate their castoff material that can be changed into a beautiful and useful product by those in need.  Instead of keeping the poor on their knees begging for charity, they put them into a merchant’s booth, selling a product they can feel pride in, making a profit that they can reinvest in their business, in their families, in their communities.  Potential has been realized.

So many times we see the poverty stricken on the media and can only feel vaguely relieved that we are not there.  We don’t see the art hiding in the dirty rags of the street people, the magnificent inventions that may come out of an uneducated child’s head if only they could learn science and technology.  Who knows what cures for diseases are hiding in the brains of people with eyes dull from hunger?

You should check out the website for WorldCrafts.  See the beautiful products, read their stories of the situations they have been rescued from.  Read what they are doing with their profits.  Think about the potential finally being realized.

WorldCrafts is not the only organization doing this.  Heifer International (http://heifer.org) is another “investment” organization that doesn’t just give once.  They provide animals of all kinds for families that can be bred and a certain number of the offspring passed along to other needy families.  Training and help is provided.  Seeds, trees, water wells, and other things needed for self sustaining communities is provided.

Other organizations all over the world do it.  They invest not in a faceless stock market, gambling that the companies and funds and stocks and bonds produce a profit for them, but in people and their growth potential.  Seed money, indeed.

If you’ve ever wished you could do something besides watch and hope somebody will do something to end a problem, check out these organizations.  You may be amazed how easy it will be to help fertilize a situation and create a tree of life, developing potential that will change the world someday.

They don’t need thousands of dollars to start.  They are already in such poor situations that what we consider a small amount of money can change their lives.  The potential found in an acorn produces a mighty oak.  What we spend on a cup of coffee could save a village.  When I was at the bazaar, I was able to buy one product, but I also offered several ideas for products that somebody might be able to produce and sell and raise their families out of poverty, send their children to school, and maybe change the world someday, somehow.

I’ve been so poor I was grateful for a bowl of beans a day.  I know how being dependent on charity grinds the soul.  I have felt the pride of earning my own money, felt the warmth of being able to help my family with that money.  I have learned self confidence, creating solutions that solved major problems.  It has been my greatest pleasure in life to help others help themselves.

Many wealthy people have learned the pain of poverty in the past few years as their world turned upside down and the skills and talents they had were no longer wanted or needed.  Situations change.  We are not guaranteed anything but salvation.  We could wind up on the streets, digging through trash cans for food, at the mercy of whoever wants to abuse us.  Would we rather stand in a bread line hoping the food lasted until we reached it or in the checkout line, using money we have made for ourselves?  What potential is being lost right now as the poor search for food and shelter in cities around the world, in our own streets, in the countrysides of countries, dodging war and famine, in brothels and sweat shops trapped with no way out?

There but for the grace of God go we…

It’s a Family Thing

“It’s the family joke,” my 88 year old uncle told me over breakfast at our favorite pancake spot.  “My brothers and sisters used to tell it all the time.  Lucky for them I think it’s funny, too.”

“It’s like this,” he explained, staring at his coffee as he concentrated on remembering the exact wording.  “It all started when I married my sister’s niece.”  He scowled at my expression.  “Not MY niece. HER niece.  There’s a difference, you know.”  Then he paused.  “You should write this down,” he suggested.  “So you get it right.”

I thought that was a good idea, so I pulled out a notepad and pen.  He proceeded with the explanation.  “You see, when I married your aunt, I became my wife’s uncle, my sister’s nephew, a first cousin to my nieces and nephews, and finally, my own uncle.”  I thought about it later, and realized he hadn’t mentioned he and his wife were also first cousins to their own children and to each other.  Huh.  I’ll have to point that out to him.  He’ll probably get a laugh out of that, too.

Relationships interest me.  I’m one of five sisters.  People often ask us if we have any brothers.  It’s our family joke that we used to, but we got rid of them.  I wonder why they always look like they’re not sure whether to believe us or not…

I live with one sister.  The others all  live alone.  If my sister and I could afford it, we’d probably live alone, too.  We’re all happy hermits, with our own preferences and habits.  Even the two of us who share a house can spend hours in silence, cheerfully ignoring each other.  One sister did get married and stayed that way for thirty years till she became a widow and raised two lovely daughters, but now she lives alone and enjoys it.  We’re close, though, when trouble looms, like when we all wound up with various forms of cancer, or somebody needs some transportation, or a hand moving something around.

Facebook has been a real boon to us, because now we can keep in touch with each others’ lives without getting on each others’ nerves, which was always a problem before.  Keeping in close contact can create friction and heat, just like with brakes.  I’ve found it’s the same way with friendships.  I’m a whole lot closer to people now that I don’t have to look at them all day, like my coworkers.  It works for us.

Because of my interest in relationships, I’ve been checking into genealogy and asking a lot of questions of my relatives.  If it weren’t for my preference for tact and manners, I’d ask lots of rude questions about their marriages, and family lives, and what are their children doing running around with that crowd?  Oh, the things I’d like to know, but know it’s rude to ask, and some questions might get me arrested for stalking…  So I stick to the relatives that aren’t around any longer.

My father and uncle’s mother told her children when they asked about him that her daddy was hung for a horse thief and that’s all she would say about it so never ask again or else!  They took her seriously.  She was the kind of woman you took seriously.  I knew her for a short while, and I totally understood.  My mom told me when I asked that as far as she knew, during the Civil War her forefathers had spent the war raiding the farms of those whose menfolk had gone away to fight.  Sheesh! Outlaws on both sides?  But a few years after that, she was listening to a history program on the radio and heard some names she recognized from her family’s lineage, and found she might have some relatives who were Union generals commanding prisoner of war camps.  My uncle and father’s paternal grandfather was a doctor in the Confederacy for all of three months.

I decided to spend some time on Ancestry.com and see what I could find.  It’s been very interesting.  My dad’s maternal grandfather’s death certificate said he died of heart disease in 1918.  Either she was wrong (or couldn’t stand her dad – apparently he was abusive) or the doctor was trying to be polite.  It also listed his father, but his mother was unknown, at least by the informant, who had his last name but an illegible first initial.  Handwriting, people!  It’s important!  Someday some genealogist will be trying to read yours! His wife died six years later of exhaustion as a result of senile dementia.  She was 62.

The Confederate doctor spent his time in the military hiding in a tent.  No, he wasn’t a coward; he had asthma, and the dust raised by all the soldiers was killing him.  But the soldiers discovered he was a doctor and formed long lines at his tent every day, because even without battles going on, you could easily get injured.  When the army was preparing to move, his commanding officers told him to go home before he got worse and just take care of the folks at home.  He obeyed, and rode horseback in a three county circuit to provide medical care for the citizenry. He had lost a young wife after a ten year marriage and seven children, and had joined the cavalry to try to get over not being able to save his own wife and child.  It was time to get back to his remaining six children.

But his three months in service was enough to score his second wife and widow a pension from the state after his death and a bed in a Confederate widow’s home in Austin until her death.  I have a copy of her application for the pension and her death certificate.  She died of ‘cancer of the heart’.  Studying her life history, I realized she had at 22 married a man old enough to be her father and started her married life with six children.  Then she got to run the homestead and his children while he doctored the public.  Tough lady, she lasted until she was 84.

I’m still working on my mom’s side.  She’s great for remembering names and I now have several pages of names and families and locations to look up.  Both she and my late father come from very prolific families and the men seem to have outlived more than one wife and had kids by all of them, so there is a lot to look up.  It’s very interesting, though, and I keep running into unexpected side trips, like the book of oaths I found from Georgia that all the men over 21 had to sign and swear they would not rise up against the United States after the end of the Civil War.  I love history, but I am so glad I didn’t live through it.

My uncle brought over the family Bible he found in a back room some years after his wife died.  I photocopied the list of births and deaths such old family Bibles always had and thumbed through the rest of it, because I’m always interested to see if the owners ever made notes in the margins like some people (read, me) do.  To my surprise, a tightly folded thin piece of paper fell from between the pages.  Opening it carefully, I discovered it was a letter written by my father’s and my uncle’s father, a farmer and carpenter, that was never sent.  It was a ‘day in the life’ kind of letter, that people used to mail to each other instead of putting it on Facebook in bits and pieces.  At the very end he mentions that his stomach is bothering him and he would take a shot of medicinal whiskey to see if it would settle.  I glanced up at the date at the top and realized in shock it was the day before he died of a burst appendix.  My uncle and I just stared at each other.  Talk about hearing ghosts of the past.

I am eager to see what else I find about my family history and any interesting little side trips.  I know my family has traveled far and wide.  A few years back, we held a Perry family reunion in a recently discovered rural cemetery.  No, we’re not weird; most cemeteries in the country were next to churches, and we are used to big celebrations involving food and faith surrounded by gravestones.  We saw several very small cars pull up next to the big pickup trucks and SUVs most of my relatives drove.  A flood of Japanese tourists, complete with collections of cameras around their necks, came up to our group as we paused over our barbecue, potato salad, watermelon, and chocolate cake.  We figured they had managed to get thoroughly lost, because this tiny Civil War era graveyard was waaaaaaay out in the sticks.  Instead, their spokesperson grinned widely, pointed at the banner somebody had hung among the trees and said “Perry?”  When we nodded, fascinated, he pointed at himself and the rest of his group and announced, “Perrys!”  We now have a large family photo of short Japanese folk surrounded by tall gangly Texan cowboys, all grinning proudly.  I can hardly wait to see who else I might be related to.

Almost forgot to add this:  To complete the family circle, I just met the newest member of our large family.  (I’m pretty sure she’s the newest at only a few weeks old.)  The family on all sides makes adorable babies and boy, do we love to take pictures.  One of the projects I’d love to do is fix a baby book with the several generations of baby photos we have, and maybe throw in the oldest photos we have.  Family should be a thing to celebrate, and if you’d rather not associate with yours, start your own.  Family is not alway made of blood connections.  Go hug someone today, and tell them a joke.