Just Some Vanilla

I’m no fan of snow, but as my eyes roll in disgust at weather forecasts I concede there were times when snowfalls thrilled me. Not due to missing school, sleigh riding, or building snowmen, but because Vicki and I would go to the store for Nannie.

At an unknown point in our youth, after one snowstorm or another, my sister Vicki and I decided we must plod across the field through snow, no matter the depth, to see if our grandmother needed anything from the store. Nannie lived in a huge old farmhouse, had always cooked for many, and could have at any point in time prepared a meal for forty out of what she had in her cabinets and refrigerator. Not even touching what was stored in her cellar.

Still… Vicki and I were sure Nannie needed something and we’d save the day by trudging through snow to ask, trekking through snow to the store, then slogging back through snow with the precious items we knew she needed badly but was unable to get out and get. Proud of our impending usefulness, we stomped snow from our boots and headed inside for what was sure to be a massive grocery list from Nannie. How else could she make it to the spring thaw if not for our efforts?  It was important to her that we helped, we were sure. We waited for her to list all of the things she needed desperately from the store.

“Well,” Nannie began as she watched snow pile against the window, “y’all could get me some vanilla.”

She did a lot of baking, we knew, but no milk? No bread? Coffee even? A side of beef? Anything? Just vanilla? Still, if it was important to Nannie, it was important to us and this vanilla was apparently very necessary. How fortuitous that we were there! Off to the store in the foul weather, vanilla purchased, and back to Nannie’s. We returned cold, soaked, red-cheeked, and tired… but mission accomplished. We had value.

That pattern repeated for a few years after every snowfall of every winter. If there were two heavy snows in a winter, Nannie somehow needed two bottles of vanilla. Our timing was uncanny. How relevant we were. It was important for Nannie to have that vanilla and without us her hopes would have been dashed. We felt an amazing sense of accomplishment and pride after helping. We were just kids, but we mattered!

Years later as adults, actually during the heat of summer, Vicki and I sat talking with Nannie on her back porch. Somehow conversation worked around to those long ago winters. I laughed and asked her why she needed so much vanilla. She thought for a minute about what I’d just said, then grinned.

“I didn’t need vanilla, but it was important to y’all to help, so that’s what I asked for.” Nannie said.

She followed up by saying she didn’t remember exactly but there were times she probably could have used something else but she’d never have asked us to haul groceries in the snow. She only “needed” vanilla because she knew it mattered to us to be of help – and it was easy for us to carry!

Some years after that conversation, with Nannie gone and her house being emptied, I stood in her kitchen and absent mindedly opened a cabinet. Pushed into one corner were several bottles of vanilla, some still in their original tiny cardboard boxes. I didn’t know if any of those might have been purchased in a snowstorm of the past, but I slipped one into my pocket just the same.

I still have that reminder.

By trying to do something we thought important to her, Nannie allowed us to feel that we were important.

I often sent my kids for vanilla when they were little. Not literally, but when I recognized in their faces that need to please by doing right, to feel important, to matter, I made sure I needed vanilla and I made sure they knew I couldn’t have gotten it without them.

Every kid should be sent to get vanilla, and often.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Filed under Family, grandmother, lesson

Very Inspiring?

I sincerely thank Rebecca Daley at https://ohtogoawandering.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/753/  for nominating me for a Very Inspiring Blogger award.

Many of us who blog on WordPress joke that “awards” in this world are more like a game of tag. That’s true! But no one tags randomly and I consider a nomination for an award of any kind to be a great compliment.

We write to be read. We spit out our thoughts and imagine that everyone, or no one, is reading them. But how can we know whether anyone is reading them?

Well, now I know that Rebecca Daley is reading them because she recognized me in one of the only methods available to us here on WordPress. For that I thank her and am happy to follow the “rules” in appreciation!

Here are the rules for the award:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other blogs you enjoy, then comment on their posts to let them know that you have nominated them.

Seven facts about me:

  1. I currently live in Alexandria, Virginia and work at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. doing administrative work for the Lombardi Cancer Center.
  2. I was born in Richmond, Virginia and lived there my entire life before moving here about five years ago.
  3. I miss digging potatoes with my huge extended family, shelling butter beans on my grandmother’s back porch, picking tomatoes with my cousins, shucking corn by the barn, and picking blackberries in the pasture. And I miss childhood collie, Mitzi, my good friend.
  4. My daughter is now 18 and my son will soon be 17. In my mind they’re still playing in the sandbox while I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Barney is playing on the TV for when they come in, and after their naps we’ll go to Mama’s for a little while.
  5.  I love life in D.C. but I miss open fields. I’ve been known to go for a drive just to see grass and nothing. I appreciate open nothingness and a horizon.
  6. And cows. I appreciate cows. I’ve known quite a few fine cows in my life. When you imagine a strong, stoic, powerfully maternal, intelligent, social, gentle personality –  think cow. Just try it.
  7. I began to blog almost on a dare. A good friend of mine insisted that others might want to hear stories she’d long heard me go on about. I doubted that, but after a year of pestering I published my first post and it’s been nothing but fun ever since.
  8. And finally – my fifteen nominations. Numbered, but listed in no particular order because I appreciate them all for various reasons and none can really be compared to the other:

To the nominees – you may not care to take part or may have already been nominated. Either way, please take this as a friendly nod in your direction!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Tag, You’re It

While getting dressed for work this morning I carefully tore away the dry cleaner tag stapled around the collar label inside my new shirt. There had been enough obnoxious tags to remove when I bought it, now back from the dry cleaner it had another.

Ughhh…one last tag.

That tiny ripping sound as I removed it reminded me of new clothes I bought back in my college years. On the first of maybe two shopping “sprees” in my life, I’d come away with several new shirts and pairs of pants.

My spree had run late by the time I got home. Not bothering to wash them before going to bed I promptly put the new clothes away – by tossing them in a lump across the back of a chair. Those were college years, after all. The next morning I dressed hurriedly, about to be late for class, and eagerly dug through my new purchases for something to wear.

I ripped tags from first one pair of pants, then another. There seemed to be tags on the waists, tags on every pocket, tags around belt loops. Plastered to one leg of each pair of pants was a foot long clear sticker with “32 waist” printed down its length. Yes, “32 waist”… those were college years after all…

I ripped tags with reckless abandon and realized I was late for class. I pulled on a new pair of pants, grabbed one of the new shirts, and rushed from my room. I was very proud of my new clothes and thought I looked spectacular. As I walked across campus it became clear that everyone seemed to agree.

My new wardrobe was a hit, especially my new shirt with a navy blue background and tiny red and green stripes. It was a handsome shirt and it caught eyes wherever I went. Other students looked at my shirt and smiled. Some even pointed me out to their friends. What a fashion plate I was. As I walked from class to class that day I enjoyed constant attention as a result of my fabulous clothes.

At the end of the school day I hurried home to change and relived how proud I’d been of my new clothes. As I took off my handsome new shirt something rough scraped and cut hard across my neck. In slow motion I finished taking the shirt off, gingerly held it in front of me, and slowly turned it around to examine it. I expected to find a scorpion, maybe a king cobra, a rabid rhinoceros, or something equally sinister that had clung to me all day before launching an attack.

And there it was.

A foot long clear sticker.

In my haste that morning to pick out what to wear I’d pulled tags off of everything – except my handsome green shirt. All day I’d paraded from class to class with a foot long clear sticker running down the front of my shirt, “L” printed down its length. Thus, the attention.

Ughhh…one last tag.

I never wore that shirt to school again.

Over the years I laughed about that sticker whenever I bought new clothes. I vowed it would never happen again, and it hasn’t. Not once have I been caught with a sticker on my clothes. But, several years ago after an all-day meeting, I realized I’d spent the entire day with a price tag attached to a long plastic line dangling from the armpit of the new jacket I’d worn. I thought I’d been careful to remove all signs of new purchase, but no.

Ughhh…one last tag.

I may have never thought about those two incidents again had it not been for the dry cleaner tag on my shirt today. No, not the one I removed from the inside of my collar…

On the way back to my desk after getting coffee this morning a coworker smiled and asked if I’d recently had my shirt laundered. I answered why yes I had, then thought how wonderful that for only $1.99 my shirt must appear remarkably clean.

As I set the coffee cup down on my desk something scraped and cut hard across my hand. I had visions of scorpions, king cobras, a rabid rhinoceros, or something equally sinister. In slow motion I looked down at my hand and there it was.

A second dry cleaner tag had been waving in the breeze all morning from a button-hole in the front of my shirt.

Ughhh…one last tag.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Free Show

Several of us waiting for the bus this morning watched a starling glide in and land on the pipe suspended high above our heads. The bird fluttered in the wind as it fought to balance itself on the slick rounded surface of the pipe which is attached to a pole across the street, stretches over two lanes, and its uncapped end opens directly above the bus stop and right over our heads.

The starling gained its balance, hopped sideways to the end of the pipe, and cocked its head to peek into the open hole. It then sat upright, hesitated a second, and flew across the street and into the woods.

I remembered last spring when I noticed a starling fly in and out of the open end of this same pipe. For days it carried grass and such as it built a nest, then later made trip after trip into the pipe carrying insects to the nestlings. I was encouraged this morning by the bird’s brief visit.

“Maybe it’s a sign of spring.” I said to the others. I related how I’d watched a starling last spring as it went through the nesting process in the pipe overhead. It was fun to see that “free show” every morning.

“What made you notice a bird in a pipe?” one puzzled woman asked. She takes a later bus but arrives at the stop to wait as early as the rest of us.

“Not sure,” I began, “but there are lots of those free shows out there.”

The woman adjusted her scarf and pulled her hat down tighter against the wind. “Like what? What other free shows?”

I gave more bird examples. Birds are everywhere, relaxing to see in flight, or comical when squabbling over randomly tossed French fries. Clouds are pretty fun too and I asked the woman if when driving she’d ever missed a green light while preoccupied watching particularly cool cloud formations.

She stared at me as if ready to sign a restraining order. “No. No I haven’t.”

I assumed our conversation was over since her facial expression indicated she thought me a nut. She readjusted her scarf, which was flailing in the wind, and slowly stepped closer to me.

“Those sound nice but with my luck the birds would peck and the clouds would form a thunderstorm!” she halfway laughed as she offered her negative spin.

“What about trees?” I asked.

“What about them?” she countered as she slipped on her gloves.

“Well, this time of year with no leaves you notice their form. Spring comes and you watch buds light up the woods with green. In summer they’re lush and everyone loves leaves in the fall.”

“I pick up sticks and rake leaves in my yard. I can’t say I’m a fan.” she responded negatively.

I often say we should look for “sprinkles” in our days, little moments of fun, more of those free shows. It’s sappy and silly, but so what, it’s nice. With less and less nice in the world these days we have to hunt harder for sprinkles when we need them. I suggested this notion to the woman.

“Free shows like that bird are sprinkles in the day. They’re out there if you watch for them.” I said as I saw my bus approach the stop.

“Ha!” the woman laughed as she stepped back to wait for her bus. “Sprinkles? I’ve never been sprinkled. With my luck I’d be splattered!”

You can’t win them all I thought as I stepped onto the bus and took a seat. Through the window I saw the starling glide in and land on the pipe again. The waiting woman looked up at the bird as it fought to gain its balance. I thought how cool, she noticed the bird and she’ll recognize it for what it is. She’ll finally get sprinkled.

My bus pulled away slowly and I watched the woman watching the bird. I glanced up once more at the pole to see the starling back itself towards the end of the pipe. It raised its wings a bit, stretched its body out a little, and proceeded to poop…the wind caught it and hurled it in several directions.

The woman stepped backwards quickly. I couldn’t hear her through the glass but her lips mouthed words I knew I’d not be able to type here. The starling flew across the street and into the woods. The woman rapidly wiped her arm and scarf, her mouth in constant motion.

Oh well, she was right. She didn’t get sprinkled, she got splattered.

And I got another free show.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Filed under everyday, karma, old fashioned, positive

Birds Of A Feather

My bus arrived on time in spite of the foul weather. I shook my umbrella, climbed the steps, and headed straight for the empty seat beside Marble Lady. I call her that now because last week she cleaned her purse during our morning commute and we discussed the small green marble she discovered in its zippered pocket. She’d found the marble in her yard, dropped it into her purse thinking it may have once belonged to her now adult son, and thought no more about it until she came across it that day on the bus. After we talked, she realized her sentimental feelings attached to it and instead of getting rid of the marble, she kept it.

This morning she faced the window when I boarded the bus. As I sat down she turned to give a “good morning” nod to whoever it was beside her. Seeing me, she broke into a smile. There was a question I’d been waiting to ask her but didn’t know my chance would come so soon.

“Have you lost your marbles?” I knew she’d remember last week’s conversation.

“No,” she laughed, “but I gave one away!”

Our bus stopped with traffic ahead of us, poor weather making it a slow commute. While we waited, she explained that she’d told her son about the small green marble. He agreed it was likely his because he remembered his set of marbles as a little boy. She’d told her son about our conversation and how a rush of sentimentality made her want the marble she initially disregarded. She had been affected by memories the marble sparked.

“I’ll never look at a marble the same way!” she insisted.

Marble Lady continued by saying she and her son had enjoyed a conversation of their own about sentimentality. They had laughed and remembered some good times but agreed that neither of them were usually prone to those feelings.

“Still, I’ll never look at a marble the same way.” she repeated. “Most things just don’t affect me like that.”

“Not me.” I confessed. “Not sure whether a blessing or a curse, but almost anything can make me sentimental.”

“Almost anything?” her tone begged me to seek professional help.

“Almost anything.” I confirmed with resignation.

The bus crawled forward and stopped again. While we waited, Marble Lady casually wiped moisture from the window to reveal a small bare tree by the street. A single blackbird flew onto a branch. In a moment it was joined by another, then three more, one more, two more, then many more, until suddenly the tree was peppered with blackbirds. They mingled, flapped wings, traded places, and made a ruckus we heard from inside the bus. I stared at the bustling blackbirds as the bus crawled forward a few more feet.

Marble Lady remarked how interesting it is that blackbirds spend most of their lives alone or with one or two more but at certain times of the year they gather from near and far to be together, say whatever it is they say to each other, then part ways knowing they’ll do it again next year. She stopped talking when she noticed me staring at the flock.

“Oh no.” she grinned, remembering how almost anything can make me sentimental. She leaned closer to get my attention. “Don’t tell me that flock of birds makes you feel sentimental?”

“Noooo. Not at all.” I answered. “It makes me feel nostalgic!”

Good manners prevented her eyes rolling.

I attempted an explanation. “I was just thinking how that flock of birds compares to my family.”

Her eyes still didn’t roll but she stifled a laugh. “It makes you feel nostalgic? Tell me how!”

This was a pop quiz, I thought. I could never pass a pop quiz when I was in school. Now here was another, just like the one I had in Chemistry decades ago when I’d only studied for History. My stomach lurched like our bus in the traffic as I pondered just how to articulate my nostalgia.

I explained that my immediate family is large and my extended family is absolutely sprawling. Between aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, spouses and children of all, we’re a lot like those blackbirds. We spend most of our lives alone or with one or two others, but once a year or so we flock together. Just like those birds, there are certain times of the year when we gather from near and far to be together, say whatever it is we say to each other, then part ways knowing we’ll do it all again next year.

I’m sure Marble Lady wanted to tell me it wasn’t she who might have lost her marbles. She stared blankly at me for a second then looked back at the flock of raucous birds. As if on cue their muffled chatter ceased and they emptied the tree in unison to disperse in various directions. Marble Lady turned to look at me again.

“Well, now I will never look at a bird the same way.” she said.

The bus moved on at regular speed, Marble Lady became a birdwatcher, and I wondered whether I’d lost marbles of my own or finally passed a pop quiz.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Small Green Marble

A massive purse sat propped open in her lap as I approached. From the seat beside her she moved a small pack of tissues, two pens, and a broken pencil to make room for me. I took my seat and gasped as something jabbed me in the left buttock.

“I think you forgot this.” I said, handing her the bristled end of a broken hair brush.

“Sorry!” she shook her head apologetically. “I wanted to clean out this old purse on the ride to work and I have thrown things everywhere.”

The bus continued its route while she continued her cleaning. She shuffled through hand-written notes, balled up scraps of paper, and checked and rechecked zippered compartments in the giant purse.

“Well look at this.” she said as she held up a small green marble. “I found it in the yard one day when I left the house and forgot I’d put it in here. My son is grown but he had a set of green marbles he played with all the time. I’m sure it was one of his.”

“You should hold on to it then.” I said. She stared at the marble she held in the air.

“I’m too sentimental as it is.” she said and handed me the marble. “Here, if someone says you’ve lost your marbles, now you have proof you haven’t!” We both laughed and I took the small green marble she pressed into my hand.

“It’s crazy to hold on to it just because it reminds me that my son was a tiny boy.” she stared through the bus window.

“Not really.” I said. “I have boxes of things like that marble”.

She turned around and tossed the last few items back into her purse that had been scattered in her seat as we’d talked. She looked at me expecting, I assumed, to hear what I had in the boxes I’d mentioned.

“You wouldn’t keep something as silly as a marble, would you?” she asked.

“Ohhh yes.” I said as I thought of my sentimental trinkets. “From the time I was a kid I’ve kept a puppy tooth our collie lost, a feather from a quail I hatched in an incubator, and a heart-shaped rock I found in the pasture.”

“I just might keep those too.” she smiled out of courtesy.

On a roll, I continued. “I have the cracker tin my grandmother used in her kitchen, a tiny basket my son carved from a peach pit, and a pocket knife my uncle gave me for helping him one day.”

“I just might keep those too!” she smiled again and seemed to give thought to the relevance of everyday trinkets.

I told her more about various items I have in boxes and drawers, any one of which could look like meaningless trash to others. To me, each has a story.

Who could know the number of times my grandmother’s caring hands opened the cracker tin? The sharp little puppy tooth is a reminder of my collie’s first year as my best friend. The peach pit basket was carved by my son with the help of my father who passed away just over a year ago.

Every tiny silly trinket I keep is accompanied by a wonderful story. All I need to do is pick one up to go back in time for a minute or two. Good reminders of great times. At the mention of each of my keepsakes the woman beside me agreed she just might keep that one too.

I felt I’d bored her with too much nostalgia when I saw her turn away and stare straight ahead. She had a slight smile on her face, though, when she turned to me and pointed at my coat.

One step ahead of her, I had already reached for the small green marble in my pocket. I pressed it into her hand.

“I just might keep that.” she said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Look For Sprinkles

Today had been a cabbage of a day. Now I needed sprinkles.

It was a harried, unpleasant day at work. Nothing extraordinarily gruesome, just the sort of day we all have now and then which we’re glad to see come to a close. A hectic day full of irritable people and I resigned myself to endure it to the end. Yes, it was a cabbage of a day but once the cabbage was gone I could have my sprinkles.

As a kid growing up in Richmond, Virginia, I sometimes accompanied Mama on shopping trips to Southside Plaza, the local shopping center in its day. For me, eating at the S&W cafeteria there at the Plaza was the highlight of the trip. Mama picked our lunch items but allowed me the dessert of my choice. I always asked for pudding with sprinkles.

Sprinkles made me smile.

Desserts waited for me in neat rows behind glass at the end of the line where Mama paid for lunch. As she did, I looked over pudding options searching for those with sprinkles on top. There were many desserts but not all were sprinkled with happiness and I became frustrated if I could find none. Mama waited patiently for me to discover them, knowing I’d just not seen them yet.

“Sometimes you really have to look for sprinkles.” Mama said. “Just keep looking.”

She was right, of course, they were there all along but sometimes it took skill to see them. I chose my pudding, enjoyed my sprinkles, and smiled all the while.

I’m sure Mama picked a variety of things for each lunch, but of all the items she chose for me during all of the lunches we had at the S&W, I can recall only one. Cabbage. It was disgusting. Mama’s rule was hard though – eat my lunch first, and then I could have my dessert. I learned to endure the cabbage knowing that sprinkles awaited me on the other side. Then I would smile.

I thought about that on the bus ride home from work today. What a cabbage of a day I’d endured and how ready I was for sprinkles. As I sighed in relief at the day being through I overheard an elderly man in the seat ahead of mine telling jokes to his friend. I smiled at each of his punch lines. Were those my sprinkles?

When I stepped from the bus to walk home I saw two young boys carrying a fat black puppy. Not knowing which one it wanted more, the puppy rapidly licked first one boy and then the other, back and forth. The boys’ uncontrollable giggles made me smile. Were those my sprinkles?

I didn’t know what I expected my sprinkles to be today but surely jokes and a puppy didn’t qualify. Or did they? I had smiled, after all.

We all have cabbage days and as sappy as it sounds we all need to look for sprinkles. It’s imperative. We might find them in a stranger’s jokes, the comical antics of a puppy, or a million other places. As Mama taught me, it sometimes takes skill to see the sprinkles and the more cabbage of a day you have, the harder your sprinkles might be to find, but they’re out there.

Find the sprinkles. Tomorrow could hold another serving of cabbage and the next day could hold even more, so find the sprinkles where you can. It’s not always easy.

“Sometimes you really have to look for sprinkles.” Mama said. “Just keep looking.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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