A Fuzzy Gray Photo and the Fourth of July

First view of US at end of World War II

            I recently rediscovered a fuzzy gray photograph that has been in a well-worn old family album for as long as I can remember. The brown album cover is broken and the old black and white pictures are no longer held in place on the black paper pages by the little black corner stickers that now fall out when you turn the pages.

            As a little girl I spent hours studying the family photo collection, but this picture is one I never paid much attention. It shows some soldiers’ backs and shoulders. They are looking out toward the water and you can see the front half of a war ship in the background. There is also a tiny boat in the distance. Farther out there’s something else that seems to be the focus of the soldiers.

            How did I miss the significance of this fuzzy gray photo all these years? The object in the distance is the Statue of Liberty! My veteran Dad took the picture in 1946. It was his first glimpse of America after almost a year in Europe. Soldiers crowded shoulder to shoulder at the rail of the ship to gaze at Lady Liberty and cheer with excitement that they were almost home.

            Even though he went to gunnery school and was trained to drop bombs from airplanes, my Dad never saw combat. His crew had already been given orders for Europe when the war ended so their assignment changed. They flew a plane that had been fitted with cameras and instead of dropping bombs they took aerial photographs. But of all the miles of film my dad exposed, I doubt there’s a single picture more significant than the one of New York Harbor in 1946.

            How many soldiers saw this same view on their trip back to the United States? A whole generation was called to duty. They went, they served, they fought, and some came home. They came back different from when they left. Farm boys and small town boys had seen parts of the world they’d never imagined outside of history books. They came back men: seasoned, experienced, and ready to take their place in the world. Some had seen blood and death and their first glimpse of America at the end of their tour was the symbol of the freedom they had been fighting for.

            A fuzzy, gray photo just three inches by two inches—easy to overlook, easy to forget. Yet today it gives me chills. He is 85 years old now, but my Dad can still tell stories about the places he went and the things he saw during World War II. And more than 60 years later, he remembers the thrill of seeing Lady Liberty from the bow of the ship headed home.

            This year when I see the fireworks on the Fourth of July I’ll be thinking about that fuzzy gray photo and all the joy and thankfulness it represents: freedom and life worth celebrating.

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Cookies for Dr. Campbell

Why I Love to Cook

Most days my cooking just gives physical nourishment and keeps hunger pangs at bay. But occasionally I hit a home run by preparing food people really love. And when food can spark a memory like the one in this story… that’s why I love to cook.

Dr. L.L. Campbell was old when I met him. He had retired from his medical practice and was working at the hospital as vice president in charge of physician affairs when I worked for him. He had serious health issues of the kind that would have caused most people to give up. But Dr. Campbell was not most people.

A hospital administration office is a high stress place. Clinical departments, support departments, business offices, employees, managers, nurses, physicians, physicians’ staff, patients, patient families, and administrators all wind together like a bowl of spaghetti. Every one has their own agendas and priorities but they all go in different directions at breakneck speed and everyone thinks their issue is the most important. Dr. Campbell had a way of bringing calm to the chaos like a cool drink of water.

With his calm, quiet demeanor and the wisdom of his experience and years, people sought him out for advice. Doctors of all ages and administrators from all areas of the hospital came to talk to Dr. Campbell. But before he gave anybody advice, he listened to what they had to say. He waited for the whole story before he offered an opinion.

Dr. Campbell talked to me a lot. He shared with me his insightful observations of human nature, liberally illustrated with anecdotes from his life as the only child of an elderly preacher, a medical student, a young doctor with a wife and small children, and later as a middle-aged divorced doctor in the dating world, a step-parent, and eventually as a grandparent and an elder statesman in his own right.

Here are just a few of the many lessons he taught me:

  • A top-notch doctor going to bat for his patients can often resemble a two-year-old throwing a tantrum.
  • Administrators usually know when the organizations they lead need to make major changes and they usually know what changes need to be made. But they also know board members, managers, and employees probably won’t listen when they try to tell them to change. That’s why they hire consultants. And the more expensive the consultants, the more likely people are to do what they recommend.
  • If you actually read the precautions on prescription medication, you’ll never take anything.
  • If you aren’t going to do what the doctor tells you to do, going to the doctor is a waste of time—yours and the doctor’s.
  • Even though your mother always felt your forehead, the only way to tell for sure if a kid has a fever is with a thermometer.

Even though he was a brilliant man of science with deep feelings, he nearly always kept a poker face. Except for a twinkle in his eyes and a twitch in his beard when he laughed at the latest doctor joke, he didn’t usually let his feelings show. Maybe he hid  his feelings to maintain his professionalism or maybe he was used to wearing a mask to hide his physical pain, but one day I saw a peek at how deep Dr. Campbell’s feelings really ran. 

I had made cookies and taken them to work. The container was almost empty by the time Dr. Campbell got a cookie. One bite and the look in his eyes told me I had given him a memory of something very old and very far away. He told me the taste reminded him of the cookies his mother made and she had been dead for more than 50 years. I’m certain his mother and I were not using the same recipe. Mine called for cream cheese and he said his mother would not have had access to cream cheese. But there was something similar about the taste that took him across years and miles to his mother’s kitchen.

When Dr. Campbell’s birthday rolled around, I made a double batch—enough for him to share with all the well-wishers who would be stopping by. But instead of sharing, Dr. Campbell took the box of cookies into his office, closed the door and spent the morning remembering his mother. 

Chewy Cheesecake Cookies

½ cup butter, softened

1 cup sugar

½ cup chopped pecans

3 oz. cream cheese (not the whole package), softened

1 cup plain flour

Cream butter and cream cheese together. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add flour and beat well. Stir in pecans. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto baking sheet, leaving room between cookies for them to spread out. Bake at 375 degrees for 12-13 minutes or until edges turn brown. Cool for a few minutes on cookie sheet before removing to cooling rack.

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How big are a kitten’s britches?

            I can sew a little bit, but I wouldn’t know where to begin making britches for a kitten. And I certainly don’t know how big they would be if I were to try to make a kitten’s britches out of a patch of blue sky.

            My cousin Becky was visiting from Alabama the weekend the church youth group was planning a day trip canoeing down Juniper Run. I was excited for Becky to get to know my church friends and looking forward to a day of fun on the water.

            But Saturday morning dawned wet and miserable. The rain would stop occasionally but the sky stayed gray and gloomy.

            As teenagers began to arrive, my pastor/daddy and T.C. Grant and a few other adults stood in a circle in the church yard deciding if the trip was a go or a no-go.

            The kids all wanted to go ahead with the trip. We wanted to be optimistic that the weather would clear. T.C. said the wind and rain the night before had been so hard the creek was probably littered with fallen limbs and it might be impossible for canoes to get through.

            Daddy said he had always heard that if there’s a spot of blue sky big enough to make a kitten’s britches you should go ahead with your plans. The old saying gave no guidelines for how large the kitten or the style of the britches.

            That day we couldn’t find a single patch of blue in the sky so we cancelled the canoe trip. Other times since then, I’ve spied a spot of blue peeking from behind the clouds and gone ahead with my outdoor plans. The day might have started damp and depressing but the rain didn’t ruin the whole day.

            Sophisticated radars and 24-hour weather updates make old-timey weather clues seem quaint and cryptic. But on dreary mornings when I’m trying to decide whether or not to cancel outdoor plans, I still scan the heavens looking for enough clear blue sky to make a kitten’s britches.

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Borrowed Grandparents

When my parents left their home in Alabama to move to Florida in the 1950s, I almost got cheated out of grandparents—almost. I got to know my grandparents through cards, letters, long-distance phone calls and the occasional week-long visit. But with both grandmothers and my one grandfather too far away for Friday night babysitting and everyday spoiling I almost missed out—almost.

            Instead I was abundantly blessed in the grandparent department. When I was two and a half, my dad became pastor Ocklawaha Bridge Baptist Church in the Ocala National Forest—a community packed with retirees living miles and miles away from their own grandchildren.

            I never lacked for a lap to crawl into or someone to sit with in church while daddy preached and mother sang in the choir.

            Earl and Frances Midkiff had dozens of grandchildren in Iowa but during their winters in Florida I had dibs on their attention. They invited me over to bake cookies and help them decorate their travel trailer for Christmas. Mrs. Goldie Hoffman made me stuffed animals and a rag doll. Mrs. Gertie Hartselle crocheted afghans for my brothers and me just like she did for her own grandchildren up north.

            Clyde and Kathleen Harless lived in Ocala, where he was director of missions for Southern Baptist churches across three central Florida counties. Rev. Harless and my dad were good friends. The Harlesses’ only son was a missionary and their only grandchildren lived in South America. They came to our house often for dinners and weekend cookouts. One Friday afternoon they stopped at our house in their new camper and took me with them to camp overnight at Juniper Springs. We played board games, built a campfire, and walked through the woods. When I was a teenager, I stayed with them when my parents had to go out of town. When their granddaughter came to the States for a visit, they invited me to go with them to Orlando. We camped and went to Sea World, the Magic Kingdom, and the Wax Museum.

            Ethel and Charlie Henderson lived in a beautiful old country house with a white picket fence. Mr. Henderson was a true gentleman farmer. On Sundays he wore suits and polished black wingtips. But for working in the orange groves and tending his cattle, he wore a starched long-sleeved work shirt, a safari hat, crisp pants tucked into work boots, and spats! He showed me how he cut the branch of an orange tree with his pocket knife to splice in another type of tree to create hybrid fruit.

            Mrs. Henderson was a librarian in Ocala and drove the Bookmobile. I’ll never hear Burl Ives singing Christmas songs without thinking about hearing his Christmas album at the Hendersons’ house. Their dining table was loaded with Christmas goodies and a cut crystal punch bowl full of hand-squeezed orange juice with all the seeds strained out.

            Understanding that passenger train travel would soon be a thing of the past, Mrs. Henderson invited me to go with her and her granddaughter, Susan, on a train ride from Ocala to Wildwood. We rode the train then spent the day at Homossassa Springs.

            The day my dad broke his leg, Mrs. Henderson met me at the bus stop to let me know why my parents weren’t home and to take me to the hospital to be with my family.

            Rose and Oswald Harrington lived just on the other side of the church. Mrs. Harrington was one of my favorite babysitters. On trips to Ocala, my parents would sometimes stop for lunch at the Burger King on Silver Springs Boulevard but we always had to sit at a boring ole booth. When I went to Burger King with Mrs. Harrington, we got to sit at that wonderful, long narrow counter by the front windows with the fabulous spinning stools.

            The Harringtons had a bulldog named Casey whose bark terrified me, a 17-year-old white cat with no tolerance for a little girl, a fishing boat, a dock that was perfect for jumping into the lake, and the first color television I’d ever seen. All these years later, every pot of chicken and dumplings I encounter is judged by how close they come to Mrs. Harrington’s recipe.

            When the ladies had their missions meetings at the church, Mrs. Hartman used to bring me a pint-sized freezer bag stuffed with boiled peanuts from her freezer. She would set them out to thaw but they still had just enough ice crystals to make them delightful. I loved sitting with the Hartmans in church because she kept butterscotch Lifesavers in her pocketbook and if she ever ran out, Mr. Hartman would share his Tums with me. Even after I went away to college, I continued to get birthday cards from Mr. and Mrs. Hartman—every one had a crisp one-dollar bill inside.

            Robert and Frances Peebles had more than enough grandchildren but they always made room for me too. An afternoon at their house was pure delight and I loved every one of their grandchildren and other kids she kept while their parents worked. Mrs. Peebles collected salt and pepper shakers and had two shelves full of craft magazines. I loved looking at all the crochet instructions and patterns for intricate decorative pillow covers and tablecloths. My mother would never let me have a friend spend the night during the week, but when she and Daddy went of town, I often stayed with Mrs. Peebles and she always invited a friend over. When Mr. Peebles was sick and the family had been told to say their goodbyes, I was honored that he counted me among his adopted grandchildren.

            Mrs. Beatrice Holly lived in a big old wooden house across the road from Don Baker’s store and was another one of my favorite babysitters. She came to stay at our house when Tom and I both had the mumps, but I spent many afternoons at her wonderful old house. Her kitchen had a pie safe that always had something special inside. I’ll never eat warm homemade bread slathered in butter without thinking of Mrs. Holly. Her house had a huge screened back porch with a wind-up record player and in the rafters was a quilt frame. I remember going to her house one day when the quilt frame had been pulled down and the quilt was surrounded by grannies sewing and spitting snuff juice into soup cans.

            Christine Beedle’s youngest daughters were close to the ages of my big brothers. The Beedle girls always made me think of fashion models with long “That Girl” hair, white frosted lipstick and Twiggy eyelashes. I was at Mrs. Beedle’s house one day when she accepted delivery of several huge boxes of baby chickens and I got to help transfer them into an incubator. Another day a package arrived from her son, Robert, in California. She set up a slide projector so we could all see the pictures Robert had sent of the giant redwoods.

            With all my happy memories of all my many borrowed grandparents, I owe thank-you’s to countless bonus cousins for being willing to share their grandparents’ love with me. I adored them all.

            And it pains me to confess that I also owe an apology to a new generation of kids to whom I could not return the favor. When I grew up, I moved far away from my mom and dad. They showered their “grand” affections on every child they encountered. But somehow I really blew it when trying to teach my daughter to share her grandparents.  As a little girl, she was extremely possessive of their attentions and she tended to pout when she saw other kids hugging her Grandma. With five-year-old Jennifer in tow, my mother arrived at church one night and collected hugs from a small assembly of other kids. A man asked my mother, “Are these your grandchildren?” Normally shy, Jennifer quickly and firmly answered for her: “I’m the grandchildren.”

            And I’m so sorry.

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Pound Cake Packing Preacher

It's hard to take a picture of this cake because it disappears fast.

In 2009, Oxmoor House Publishers came out with a book called Southern Living Comfort Food. The back cover of the book carried the following quote from Susan Dosier, a former executive editor at Southern Living: “Maybe a pound cake needs to be perfect because it’s the hallmark of Southern hospitality. It’s the handshake of friendship to a new neighbor or a tender beacon of sympathy for those who survive a loss. It’s a happy catalyst of cozy chats and midnight snacks…. Pound cakes nourish much more than the body. They feed the soul.” I wonder if Susan Dosier ever met my Dad.

Daddy has always known his way around the kitchen. He used to make chocolate fudge and pecan divinity at Christmas and even though Mother did most of the cooking in the family, Daddy could put a meal on the table. But after the kids all left home, Mother went back to work and Daddy started baking in a big way.

I think it probably started out with him baking a cake or pie occasionally just to help out while mother did other things like vacuum and dust and cook the main meal. Or maybe he would bake a cake or pie in the afternoon before Mother got home from work so she wouldn’t have to spend so much time in the kitchen when she got home. They always went to a lot of church suppers and community covered-dish events and desserts usually travel well. The favorite standby recipes were Cream Cheese Pound Cake, Coconut Pie, and Almost Sugar-Free Banana Pudding. People would compliment my mother’s cake or pie and she was quick to tell them she didn’t make it, the preacher did. He started to get a reputation. As Mother’s Alzheimer’s progressed, Daddy did more and more cooking and his reputation for pound cakes continued to grow.

Diabetes prevents him from eating desserts except on special occasions, but he is still baking. A week seldom passes without Daddy making at least one pound cake. A few years ago he won a men’s cake-baking contest and he once donated a pound cake to an auction where it brought in $35. He takes pound cakes to church suppers and always brings home an empty plate. He often takes pound cakes to people who have been hospitalized and to families gathering for meals before funerals. He has also given them as birthday gifts. He made at least 10 for Christmas gifts this year. He has taken them to family reunions—ours and dozens of other families’ reunions as well. He once sent a pound cake to a college graduation in another state and when the graduate saw what was in the box, she cried.

In the summer of 2008 Mother got sick and had to go to the hospital for what we thought would be a minor illness. But her body started to shut down and her Living Will was called into play. She had been firm in making sure we knew she didn’t want to be kept alive with feeding tubes and breathing machines. It was all spelled out, signed, sealed, and notarized. She was moved to Marion County’s Hospice House and we waited while days dragged into weeks. For more than 50 years, Daddy had ministered to hurting families and prayed at bedsides. He wasn’t used to being on the other side of the bed. Church members prayed for us and we held firm to the belief that death ends life on earth but a better life awaits. We were especially touched by the kindness and compassion of the Hospice employees. They lovingly took care of us as well as Mother. A few weeks after the funeral, Daddy stopped by to visit the Hospice staff to say “Thank you.” He took them a pound cake.

The Recipe

Daddy’s famous pound cake recipe is no big secret, although some would like for it to be. He once shared the recipe with a woman in Texas. She made it for a family reunion and her aunt (a bakery owner) asked for the recipe, she refused, saying, “No way. I can finally make something that you can’t make.”

The recipe is in lots of cookbooks, but I first got it from Patsy Arnold more than 20 years ago. Patsy was director of McElwain Baptist Church’s ministry to shut-ins. And one year she had an idea to take each shut-in on “the list” a whole pound cake so they would be able to have something to share with holiday visitors. To avoid any problems, she wanted everyone to get the same kind of cake so she published the recipe in the church bulletin and recruited everyone who knew how to operate a mixer to bake cream cheese pound cakes. The Birmingham Baptist Association later expanded the idea to delivering whole cakes to prison inmates. When I worked for The Alabama Baptist, I wrote a feature article about the cake-baking ministry. Mother liked the article and around that time she switched from her usual Sour Cream Pound Cake to the Cream Cheese Pound Cake recipe. So with apologies to the sweet lady in Texas, here is the recipe:

Cream Cheese Pound Cake

1 stick butter

2 sticks margarine

8 oz. cream cheese

3 cups sugar

6 eggs

3 cups cake flour

Dash of salt

1 ½ tsp. vanilla

Cream the butter, margarine, cream cheese and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, along with cake flour, salt, and vanilla. Mix until smooth. Bake 1 ½ hours (or a little less) at 325 degrees.

You can bake it in a tube pan, a bundt pan, or 2 loaf pans. Shorten the baking time for loaf pans. Daddy doesn’t use special cake flour and his cakes work just fine. Sometimes I use 2 sticks of butter and one stick of margarine instead of the other way around. The secret to a pound cake (according to Mrs. Kate Randall of Conner, Florida, who lived to be 103 and was also famous for her cakes) is to cream the butter/sugar mixture really well before you add the eggs. Don’t beat it too long after you add the eggs.

Happy baking!

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Sleeping Arrangements

On a trip to Historic Williamsburg, Virginia, I loved touring old homes, taverns, government buildings, and shops and learning about everyday life in the 1700s. One of the fascinating tidbits I learned on a tour of a historic inn was that centuries ago when a man checked in, he was simply renting a space in a bed. There were often many beds in a room and an inn guest had no say over who he slept with.

In my early childhood, my family operated under a similar system. Grandmother figured out sleeping arrangements and as long as everyone had a pillow, a quilt, and a soft spot to rest, it worked and no one complained.

Make up a double bed sideways and three granddaughters fit just fine. Once you take the cushions off the pull-out sofa, you tuck them into a twin-size fitted sheet and lay quilts on top; that makes a perfect pallet for one of the grandsons. Pallets could be tucked anywhere: between a bed and a wall, under a dining room table, or (in hot weather) on the screened porch.

When our house was going to be full of guests, Mother sometimes borrowed a rollaway bed. One time the house was so full of company there was not even room to set up the borrowed rollaway bed. So Daddy set it up in the fellowship hall at the church. After everyone else was in bed, Mother and Daddy took a flashlight and padded through the sand to sleep in the church building. The plan was for them to get up early enough to be back at the house cooking breakfast before anyone even knew they were gone. The plan almost worked. However, I was really little and when I woke up in the night I wanted my Mother and no one else would do. One of our guests–teenaged Rhonda Basford–bravely carried me through the nighttime forest to get me to where my Mother was.

Uncle Byron and his family surprised us one weekend. No one knew they were coming and the whole family had already gone to bed when they arrived. Tom, the light sleeper of the family heard them drive up. He was a teenager and he quickly took charge of sleeping arrangements. He put Susan in my bed with me. He quietly made up the sofa for Uncle Byron and Aunt Iris then he fixed a place for little Stevie. He had just put Lamar in his own bed and was trying to figure out where he would sleep when my Mother woke up.  An expert at sleeping arrangements, Mother said, “I’ll crawl in with the girls, you go sleep with your Daddy.” That plan worked fine until Daddy, unaware of the all the activity that had taken place since he went to bed, rolled over and put his arm around the warm body he thought was his wife.

For many years, breakfast table conversations at family gatherings focused on who snored, who kicked, who hogged covers, and who talked in their sleep.

All that changed in the late 1970s. Maybe we were part of a larger cultural shift or maybe we just got a little more sophisticated when we got older. But no one expects to have to sleep with cousins any more. Now when we get together, some people might actually stay at a nearby hotel. And the catalyst for the change in sleeping arrangements in our family can be traced back to one person: Gail Taquino Estes and my big brother’s love for her.

As the oldest grandchild on both sides of our family, Don carried a lot of clout in the family—still does. He is quiet and doesn’t say much, so when he does speak up it’s usually important and people pay attention. Shortly after Don married Gail and turned her into the first granddaughter-in-law, life changed for the whole clan.

The family was gathered at Grandmother and PawPaw’s house and, as always, Grandmother had figured out sleeping arrangements. Her plan was for my Mother and Daddy to have the guest room; Gail would sleep with me on one of the pull-out sofas and Don and Tom would share the other one.

When Don heard the plan, he revolted. He cornered Grandmother and quietly but firmly said, “Now listen. I don’t want to cause trouble, but I didn’t get married to still have to sleep with my brother.”

Without another word, Grandmother changed the sleeping arrangements.

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Big Dimples

Asian (Oriental) American girl with dimples.

Image via Wikipedia

Back when I was young and single I stopped for lunch at a restaurant near my office for lunch one day. I was eating alone but couldn’t help but notice a young family at a nearby table. An adorable little girl about three years old was eating lunch with her parents and struck up a conversation with a grandmotherly gray-haired lady at the next table. The parents beamed as they watched the lively conversation develop. Their beautiful little girl had the attention of almost every patron in the small dining room and you could tell they were proud to share her cuteness. They had no idea that in just a moment they would both flush with embarrassment and they’d wish they could melt into the floor.

The little girl explained to the older woman that she had been to Mother’s Day Out. They talked about all kinds of things and the conversation went on for quite some time. The little girl was more interested in talking to her new friend than in eating her hamburger and began to pick little pieces off the bun. She picked off bits of bread until she had holes in her bread resembling facial features—eyes, nose, mouth. She showed the face to her new friend and squealed with laughter as each feature was identified. But there was a spot on the bun near the mouth and the little girl didn’t know what that could be. “What’s that?” She asked, pointing to the spot beside the mouth.

“Maybe it’s the dimple,” suggested the woman.

“Nymple?” questioned the little girl, “What’s a nymple?”

“Yes. A dimple” explained the woman. “It’s the little dent in your face right beside your mouth. You have big dimples like your daddy.”

After studying the woman with a blank look for a second. The little girl suddenly understood and her face broke into an animated smile. These people were teasing her and she was smarter than that. “Nooooooo,” she countered loud enough for everyone in the dining room to hear, “Daddy’s got little nymples. Mommy’s got great big ones.”

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