Memories of Grandfather’s chick house

An East Texas chick house, old building of tin and wood

I’ve been a little shaky in my resolve to come back here: after all, it’s been torn down for years. It’s all tract homes now, pretty and rural, but still…. They should have left it the way it was, the way it was when we had fun here. When we worked here. When we couldn’t wait to unfasten the latch and see our tiny fluff-balls of chicks. Continue reading

The Versatile Blogger Award

I was so tickled and flattered to be nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award by My Personal Thing. As I enjoy her blog so much, it was a joy to be the target of her generosity. It is difficult to nominate just fifteen others – there are so many wonderful people doing good work here. The outstanding ones below are deserving of the award and special attention:

The rules of the Versatile Blogger Award require a person to tell the person who nominated them seven things about themselves. Here goes:

  1. Proust is my favorite author. His translator called him “the most intelligent man who ever wrote a book”, and I agree.
  2. I’m from a little Southern town.
  3. I write my blog because I have such happy memories of my childhood and can’t bear to think no one else has them. So now I pass them on to you.
  4. Mahler and Saint-Saens are my favorite composers, but nothing beats a good jug band.
  5. My three favorite films are “Jules and Jim”, “La Strada”, and “Babe” (yes, the little pig movie!)
  6. I love photography and have a Flickr account, which is suffering neglect due to this blog. I also make miniature books.
  7. Despite writing three novels and a boatload of short stories, the only things I have had accepted for publication are nonfiction magazine articles, needlepoint patterns, and photographs. Realizing that I just don’t have a commercial novel in me was very freeing.

Great-grandmother’s candlestick, my most treasured possession

Mary Ethel Wynne Helvenston tintype photo. #Mary Ethel Wynne #Mary Ethel Wynne Helvenston

My great-grandmother lived during a time of great injustice. Slavery was practiced in the South; child labor was rampant in Northern factories. As the daughter of slave owners, she was too young at the time of the Civil War to comprehend all … Continue reading

The dangers of genealogy websites, or, Where did our privacy go?

This is a step outside my usual post, but I’m concerned. I took a recent tour through a genealogy website looking for an ancestor’s birthplace. It wasn’t there. Mine was. My birth certificate was there. So was my grave. Funny – I don’t feel dead. Then I got even more curious. It turned out you could even get my criminal record for just $4.95. Whoever fell for that one was robbed – I have no criminal record. Well, unless you count that one little teeny speeding ticket…. Then I found my address, the description of my house, the square footage, what it is worth (in case someone wants to know if it’s worth robbing or not, I suppose), and then, for the clincher – a picture of the house taken a few years back after its surgery for a broken water pipe. If I ever have trouble with my memory, I can just look myself up on the internet.

Remember those questions you can choose to ask yourself if you forget your password for the bank? Well, don’t use your mother’s maiden name – that’s on those genealogy websites. Often you will find enough there to reconstruct a large portion of your life. If someone knows your name and has a general idea of where you were born, those sites are an information gold mine. The authors at The Catholic Gene have pointed out that the Catholic Church no longer cooperates with Latter Day Saint information-gathering that would enhance these sites, but it did give out some information until 2008.

Lindsay Ferrier writes in Suburban Turmoil of her attempts to remove her information from various sites. She was apparently successful, but if you read the comments, the information often just pops right back up.  It worries me that no one has sounded the alarm about genealogy sites. Most of them ask you to type in the name of your dead ancestor, but if you are up to no good, I can’t see that stopping you. Putting a thief on his honor is a worthless tactic.

One strange thing about these genealogy sites is that the information they contain is often just plain wrong. There are inaccuracies galore. According to one, I share a home with four people I’ve never heard of. One of my great-aunts was called by her nickname, and that is what is on her headstone. I wonder if anyone outside the immediate family realizes that her real name is unknown to those sites. Future genealogists may add an extra person to the family if they run across her true given name.

#Alabama #cemeteries #graveyards

Doesn’t look like trouble, does it?

Findagrave publishes photos of graves with short biographies and an opportunity to leave a virtual flower and note. This is really a lovely idea. Volunteers take a cemetery and photograph all the graves and record the inscriptions. But if someone up to no good knows your mother’s last name, they may very well find out her birth and death dates complete with links to her husband and children, her parents, siblings, etc., etc. This is really a nice website for remembering our loved ones, but information thieves are just too prevalent. Perhaps we should edit the information we provide. This site provides a way to contact the person managing the particular grave information, so you do have an opportunity to ask that certain things be removed.

I ask everyone to check out what they can find on themselves and their families just on genealogy sites. You may be surprised. I refuse to pay any money to find out more than what is available free simply because I don’t want to add to their stash of info by giving them my credit card number.

This may be information everyone already knows. But it bears repeating. We worry about the National Security Agency, identity theft rings, and overseas hackers, but I wonder how many of us realize the dangers in sites that claim to aid in such a seemingly innocent pastime as building a family tree. If you figure out what we can do about it, please let me know.

Good luck – I hope you don’t find a thing!

How Grandfather invented windowscaping, or, every room needs a beautiful view

My grandmother’s health took a downturn when she was in her forties, and the doctor ordered her to bed for almost six months. Dear Grandfather was beside himself. My mother took over many of the household duties and swore that was why she was such a good cook. But my poor grandfather felt helpless.
“What can I do?” he would plead, but there seemed to be nothing to do but what he was already doing.
Then one day he had an idea.
My mother was looking out the back door when Grandfather creaked open the metal arched gate to the back yard with a gorgeous pale yellow jasmine plant in his arms.

“Where’re you gonna put it?” My mother asked.

“Outside your mother’s window, so she can smell it all day long.”

He placed it just so, asking Grandmother if she could see it better here or there – sort of like an optometrist appointment. And after a half hour’s work and many anguished questions through the screen from my grandmother, the jasmine stood tall, proud, staked and fertilized just outside her window. She enjoyed the scent that came in on the breeze and the beautiful blossoms. Grandmother always swore it helped her recover.

This success went to my grandfather’s head. He had discovered a way to satisfy a very basic human need – the need for beauty. He was on a roll. Every bedroom – all two of them – had to have something sweet-smelling outside the windows. For my mother and father’s room, it was honeysuckle. What heaven! Then he attacked every other window in our little house, digging and planting and rearranging and paying visits to the neighbors to see if they would mind letting him have a cutting from an admired plant. He became a regular at the nursery. If “frequent shopper” rewards had existed back then, he would have been able to buy a new car.

He moved past the search for intoxicating scents and on to the aesthetics of gardening. Every window smelled good; now it had to have a beautiful view. More huffing and puffing and planting ensued. When my grandmother was up and around again, she decided that what was inside could help what was outside. To accent the yellow-blooming jasmine, she brought in yellow and white flowers with a long trail of ivy and put them in a milk-glass vase by the window to tie the two together.

Blue hydrangea #flowers #hydrangea #blooms #blossoms #flowers #gardening

Image “Blue Hydrangea” courtesy of panuruangjan at

Under the front windows was a stand of hydrangea. These she doctored with vinegar or lime to change the acidity of the soil and thereby the color of the blooms. As time went on, she had a multicolored group of the loveliest flowers in the neighborhood. And she could enjoy them from the kitchen window.

Their philosophy of gardening and decorating hinged on a deep-rooted love of nature that came from living in quiet country places blessed with lush vegetation, fresh air and abundant wildlife. Growing up in a naturally beautiful environment gave them sights into beauty that otherwise could take many years to learn.

I still think of my childhood home and the example set for me there, and at my own home there is something I love to see outside every window but one.

I’m working on it….

Modern methods of changing hydrangea color can be found at Gardenista.

Better Homes and Gardens has lovely ideas for planting window boxes.

Southern Living has a great list of the best spring flowers to plant.

For windowsill gardens, Better Homes and Gardens has good ideas on that, too.

For color theory in flower gardening, take a peek at House and Garden Television.

Text copyright ©Jill Teresa Farmer, 2015

Hemingway versus the spider – Writing 101, Day 17

The pretty little waitress told him it was there in the bar. A big one. Black. Maybe the hourglass. A black widow.

He hitched up his pants. “I’ll take care of it.” He put his Jose Cuervo down with a solid thud.

“You want a flyswatter?” She looked all woman in that little short dress and tiny apron. It had a ruffle around it. “Drink Up” was the name of the bar. It was stenciled on the back of her shirt.

“I don’t need a flyswatter.” He stood up. “Where is it?”

“Under the last table, in the corner back there.” She pointed. She needed a manicure.

He wondered how he would do it. Just stomp on it? What if it jumped? But it probably wouldn’t.

The corner table was like all the others. Sticky with the remains of the croissant someone had brought over from the bakery next door. He almost turned away. No real man ate croissants. He leaned over and looked under the table. Nothing.

“You sure it was here?”

Her face was pale. “I know it was. I saw it.”

“Where exactly?” He pulled out a chair to get a better look.

“Right about where you’re looking.”

“I don’t see it.”

“It’s there.”

He wasn’t about to admit he needed glasses. He squinted. “How big did you say?”

“Couple of inches.”

“Would that be including the legs?”

“Yeah. Including the legs.”

He still didn’t see anything. She was probably pulling the helpless female thing to get his attention. It had happened before. During the war. Back in Paris….

“Are you going to just look?” she asked. Exasperation edged her voice.

“Reconnaissance is a big part of any battle. General Patton -”

She jumped back. A trembling finger pointed. That chipped polish again.

He grimaced. “Now what?”

“It’s there, right there.”



He jumped. It wasn’t because of the spider. She had the voice of a trumpeting water buffalo.

“Dang, woman – I’m not deaf.” He stared all around his feet. Nothing.

A little man came out of the kitchen. A thin man. Small, insignificant. A white towel was tucked into his pants front like a surrender flag. A man who’d obviously never seen action. Probably ate croissants. He stared at them. “What’s going on?”

“It’s a black widow. Right there by his foot,” the girl said. She backed up. Now she was behind the little man with the towel around his waist.

“That could be a Steatoda grossa,” the little man said.

“A what?” He wished this clown would just go back in his kitchen and cut himself on the can opener.

“A false black widow. They can look black in some light, but -”

She shrieked. “It’s going up his pants leg!”

“What!” He jumped and fanned his hand at the general area she was pointing to. Now he was actually feeling something. A crawling sensation. It was there. It looked black to him. He could just make it out, advancing upward. Shiny. Stealthy. Brave. Coming in for the kill.

“Get this thing off of me!” he screamed.

The little man twitched the towel from his belt and snapped it at the spider.

They fell together, man and arachnid.

She knelt beside him. His head was now cradled in her arms. She patted his cheeks. “He’s fainted.”

The small man picked up the limp spider with a swizzle stick. “No, it was the real thing. Black widow. I’ll put it down the disposal.”

The girl looked down into his face. He was beginning to come to. “You okay?”

“Is it – ” he asked.

“Dead and gone. It’s okay now.”  She was watching the color come back into his face. “Can you get up now?”

“Sure.” He managed to get up, trying hard not to let her see that he was hanging on to the table. She clung to his arm, just in case.

“It was a flashback. Anzio. I was there again. Back on the beach. It happens to a lot of us.” He settled hard into a chair. He wondered exactly where Anzio was.

The little man came back from the kitchen with a hot croissant and set it in front of him. “On the house. I got it from next door. You want something on it?”

“Got any strawberry jam?”

He couldn’t help it. He loved croissants.

How to hang out the wash without disturbing the birds, or, Lessons from a wonderful neighbor

I had always helped my mother and grandmother hang out the wash. By “help” I mean handing them the clothespins and singing “Bringing in the Sheets”, my mistaken rendition of the old hymn “Bringing in the Sheeves”. At least I was on key. How fresh everything smelled from clean country air!

I loved this small chore so much that I farmed myself out to help the neighbors. Across the street lived Mrs. Johnson. Having a grown son who lived in another town made her a bit lonely for small companionship, so she happily accepted my “assistance”.

Hers was one of those old clotheslines made up of a “T” of hollow metal tubes. But it wasn’t as drab as it sounds, as a beautiful yellow-blooming vine twined across one end. It was probably that vine that drew other lodgers to the clothesline. Every year a bird would build a nest in one arm of that end post, lay her eggs, and go through all the avian motions of raising a tiny family.

Now there is one hitch to all this: birds are easily disturbed by humans, especially mother birds. And we needed that clothesline. But Mrs. Johnson was a nature lover like the rest of us, and she knew the difficulties all new mothers face. So we started hanging out the wash – in the house. We draped towels and clothes over every available waterproof surface. But that still left the sheets. Where on earth would we put those?

We would have made any onlooker very curious. First Mrs. Johnson would take a delicate pinch of snuff to steel her nerves. Then we would peer around the back screen door. Was she home? We would hold our breath – did you hear a chirp? Was that a flutter at that end of the clothesline? Maybe we can’t see her for the vine. Better stand here a minute to be sure.

Once we were convinced she was away from home, we would tiptoe out and hang out the wash in mute silence, using hand signals for “another pin, please”, and the frantic one for “Here she comes – get back in the house!” We used only the end of the clothesline farthest from the birds, and many a sheet that would have dried wrinkle-free was ironed because it had to be scrunched up to fit on a tiny section away from the little nursery.

Afterward we would sit on the screened-in back porch in happy satisfaction, sipping ice tea with plenty of sugar. As the days went by, we were treated to a view of nest material hanging out of the pole, small eggs, the sound of little cheeps, then a tiny beak or two. Then flying lessons. Then, the big day – the little family would be raised and the nest deserted.

Despite the strain it had been on our nerves, it was always sad when the abandoned nest held no more life. We would change back into our off-season routine. No more wet clothes over the back of the Johnson kitchen chairs. Everything could go right out on the line. We could laugh and sing as we worked our way down to the end of the old rope.

But at the end of every laundry session, Mrs. Johnson would cast a wistful eye at the end of the clothesline. I knew what she was thinking, for I was thinking the same: “I hope they’re happy, wherever they are.”

From Mrs. Johnson and the wonderful women like her, I learned reverence for all God’s creation, and that chores shared with those you love are not really chores at all. She taught me that we can all peacefully coexist with just a few concessions, seeing things from the other’s point of view, a lot of consideration for others, and, if necessary, a pinch of snuff.

Text copyright © Jill Teresa Farmer 2015. All rights reserved.

The names in this true story were changed to protect privacy. And it’s a shame – “Mrs. Johnson” was a lovely lady and a real character. I was privileged to have her in my life.

Writing 101, Day 14: An open letter to Prestige

My dear esteemed Prestige:

Excuse me for beginning this letter in such familiar terms. I would imagine that you would prefer to be addressed as “Your Excellency”, “Your Highness”, or something else equally ego-satisfying. You may not remember me, but we met on page 361 of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, Volume 5, “The Captive”. You are a truly interesting word, I must admit. I googled your definition for the sake of exactness and came up with this: “widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.” And therein lies the rub.

It is, if you will pardon me for saying so, that little word “perception” that bothers me so much. “Perception” is relative in its meaning. I suppose this makes sense. Little children often feel that some character on television has great prestige by virtue of some completely imaginary superpower; grown-ups attribute prestige to those who have achieved great wealth through their own efforts, such as Bill Gates, or great notoriety, such as Paris Hilton. And this is what bothers me.

I really prefer things to be a little more precise than what you seem to be. After all, what is prestigious one day is quite old-fashioned and comical the next. So, if you will excuse the question, “What good are you, anyway?” Your definition is so slippery and fickle that I’m not quite sure I have much respect for you anymore. Nowadays when I hear you used, you are almost always followed by “university”: This or that institution is a “prestigious university”.

It must annoy you to know that you have been largely replaced by the phrase “trending now”. I’m sorry for this; that’s a rather clunky term and you are a truly musical word when pronounced correctly. So please hang in there. You may not be trending now, but I think you will come back. And not just because they built another university. But if worst does comes to worst, just remember that once upon a time you were a word used by Marcel Proust in one of the most brilliant novels ever written. That amount of prestige ought to be enough to set you up for life.

Well, I won’t take up any more of your time. You probably won’t hear from me again, as you keep changing addresses. Have a good life and take care of yourself.

With great respect,

An anonymous admirer

Happy family reunion, or, how to get in trouble without really trying

Little girl with a pan of corn #children #corn #summer #girls

A family reunion and a platter of corn on the cob earned me a reputation as a terrible dinner guest. Maybe I was, but in my defense I was only three or four years old at the time and my social graces were limited. Nevertheless, you would have thought I’d managed to violate every code of Southern honor and Emily Post rule of etiquette that ever existed. But maybe I’d better tell you what happened. Continue reading

Writing 101: Day 8, no adverbs – An ice cream sundae in the park

The park is as it has been for one hundred years, give or take a water fountain or two. The trees bend leaf-laden arms overhead until they touch, their pale green tips entangling and clinging to one another.
The wooden slatted benches are more comfortable than the modern “improvements” they replaced – those hard, flattened arches of concrete that were touted as an “evolution” in design. Alas, our sitting apparatus had never evolved, and one noisy night a local college group demolished them with a great clamor and a final cheer. We were all grateful.
I think of that now as I chase the little rivulet of ice cream that’s creeping down my chin. The napkin catches it. I had coveted that voluptuous banana split that Louise had touted, telling me in graphic detail of its delicious perfection, the superiority of the whipped cream (“Real cream – none of that plastic stuff”), and the gleaming roundness of that perfect red maraschino cherry that dazzled from the snowy summit. I had wavered, but told her in an unconvincing voice that all I really wanted was a small chocolate sundae. She had snorted, but plopped an extra cherry on top all the same.
The sun is warm but not yet burning, and it seems that everyone else in town has decided that lunch in the park is a good idea. From the squirrel that snuffles and grunts and swishes its feather-duster tail, to Mr. Parker who has deserted the bank, loosened his tie, and slipped his feet halfway out of his impeccable Florsheims, to the young mothers in pastel shorts who lean their heads together and giggle and then make patting gestures in the air as they describe curing infant fussiness.
But there are few of the mainstays of the town – the solid working men who populate the box factory and the fields. It would be too far a trek in heavy boots and sweat-stained overalls. And it would take time, time they could use to tell embellished tales of weekend fishing trips, arms waving in the air to measure their catch, voices raised and excited over the rainbow trout that got away. They will be lolling against the tree trunks, bone-weary, enjoying the company of their coworkers and friends who chomp on everything from biscuits and jelly to the remains of last night’s now-rubbery chicken fried steak.
Dabbing at my sticky chin, I deliberate whether to arc the empty container into the trash from here. But no, my images of a graceful, Whitey Ford throw usually culminate in splattered wreckage on the grass. Besides, Mr. Parker has his eyes closed now, and there is a possibility he will nod off. A poor throw could make a harsh bounce off the metal and startle everyone.
The chimes from the church bell tower begin, and I know it’s time to go. I see Mr. Parker jerk into full consciousness. Perhaps I could make that throw. When it seems no one is looking, I lift my arm and let it fly. It takes forever before it hits the back of the trash can, hesitates, and then slides inside, a trail of melting ice cream on the plastic liner the only evidence.
“Yes!” I think.
A small victory on a perfect day.