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What I Learned from a Favorite Professor

Another Way for week of January 15, 2021

What I Learned from a Favorite Professor

Omar Eby, grading papers, behind some plants, a Shen yearbook photo.

He was known to mutter words like “rubbish!” and “horrors!” when analyzing a piece of writing.  

One of my favorite professors at Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU) died recently. Not of COVID-19, but after a long battle with vascular dementia—which sometimes comes about after a stroke, I’m told. Omar Eby taught English literature and writing courses during my time at EMU.

Omar (we usually called our professors by their first names, a practice he was fine with) was perhaps the single most influential person guiding me into the occupation I’ve loved: writer.

He was not one to mince words regarding what he thought of our writing. More than once I stiffened as he’d huff out the word “rubbish” in response to a piece of writing. But he was not rude, nor rough, just honest and not afraid to let you know how and where your writing needed improving. As a writer, you have to be ready for critique, editing, refining, putting in the most perfect word.

According to his obit, Eby was a friend and mentor to many aspiring young writers. Eby’s life of 85 years was impacted greatly by serving six years as an English teacher in east and central Africa. It was there, I’m thinking, that he learned to speak with a bit of a British English accent and flair. As he returned to the U.S. teaching at the college level, he frequently shared what he’d learned from the cultures of Somalia, Tanzania, and Zambia. He also wrote several novels and other books, some centered in Africa: How Full the River (published while I was under his tutelage).

I never saw much of him after leaving EMU, until he moved to Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, which offers full nursing care in a non-institutional, homelike setting. A group from my church would usually go there to carol at Christmas. I remember the first time I saw him with a huge bib at the large dining room table, and almost nonverbal. I drew in my breath. Could that be the professor who was always dressed neatly, always had a witty and incisive remark about a piece of writing, who had no patience for mediocrity. It was hard to see him there and as I approached him to say hello, he seemed to remember me. But I wasn’t sure.

But what counts is the instruction he gave me, mostly affirming and positive or suggesting other words or approaches. He read and graded carefully, catching the smallest misspelling and encouraging us to submit articles that he deemed outstanding to various magazines. I still laugh when I read a note on one of my papers when I tried to coin a word, “poetize.” “Horrors!” he wrote, “what a term.” I think I thought it meant to “wax poetic.” Another time I used a word, “silented.” He wrote simply, “No!” The paper got a C+. That paper ended up being a chapter in my first book—carefully fixed and expanded.

Once Omar shared how he had written a long essay on assignment for Saturday Evening Post about returning to the continent of Africa and the feelings that overwhelmed him as he flew over the western coast. He quietly told us it had been accepted for publication. Then came the bad news. They ended up paying him a kill fee—and if that sounds brutal, it is to any author/writer. It was substantial for those days, somewhere between $500 and $1000, but he said he would have been much happier to be published in the magazine and foregone the payment.

So he was human. And now has left us, like so many others. These times give us opportunity to reflect more fully on what various people have meant to us, and, I hope, give us pause to decide to invest ourselves more fully in bringing meaning and joy and instruction to the lives of others.

A yearbook picture, in his safari type top which he wore frequently, with his daughters. They later also had a son.

What did you learn from a favorite teacher, pastor, family member, friend?

***

After I wrote this, I discovered thoughts and memories regarding Omar by other English majors, and colleagues here. His memorial service is being conducted today (Jan. 23, 2021) and streaming is available here.

Your own thoughts and observations? Send to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.  

What I Learned from an Older Friend

Another Way for week of January 8, 2021

What I Learned from an Older Friend

I was blessed to develop a friendship later in life with a dear woman named Martha Stoops.

I first met Martha after the funeral of her daughter-in-law, Liz. My daughter Tanya was very close friends with Liz’s daughter, Edie. They had been friends through middle school. Liz died in late fall their freshman year of high school. At that time we only knew the family as fellow band parents. I’ll never forget the band’s piercing rendition of “Amazing Grace” playing out over the gravestones that chill day.

On the last day of 2020, my friend Martha was reunited not only with her husband who died three years ago, but her daughter-in-law, sister, and many who Martha took care of over the years. She was a LPN in nursing homes and hospitals. Later, she cared for elderly persons in her home. When she told me of her experiences she would say, “You come to understand that dying is just a part of life” and dismissed it as that. So I wasn’t surprised when her son Edward repeated his mother’s mantra when he called to let me know she had gone on: “Mom always said, ‘Well death is just a part of life.’”

We had great times together and that’s what I want to remember. We sat with them at football games when the girls (her granddaughter) were in high school and later at college games. We all went on a band trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We’d go out for dessert after games and invited each other for Christmas parties and birthdays.

Martha Stoops, left, enjoying a laugh with my mother, right, at our daughter Tanya’s wedding almost 10 years ago.

She gave me lots of good and welcome advice. About marriage. And children, and letting things roll off your shoulders. By example, she also taught me when to stay out of arguments. When a group of 12 of us traveled together to Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in New York City, we had trouble keeping together. Finally, late in the evening, my husband and I took off on our own, and said we’d take a bus back to our motel in New Jersey just west of NYC. Martha’s husband was distraught that we wouldn’t find our way back. We almost didn’t, but that’s another story. Elmer Sr. blessed us out for not adequately communicating and causing them much stress. Wisely, Martha kept out of that tiff.    

The trip I’m always glad we took was to their earlier stomping grounds in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They loved the old-timey amusement park there, Kennywood, and said we had to go. We finally made the trip with them in 2011. We had a wonderful time, like kids. It wasn’t too many years after that their health started failing.

Perhaps it was unusual to have such a good friend who was almost 20 years older. She taught me about aging. When I would call to set up a time for getting together, nailing down a date or time, she would ask her husband to get on the phone so she wouldn’t forget the details. Eventually I asked her about that over dinner—whether she was afraid of not remembering. “Yes,” she told me, and I lamented what we both had suspected to be true. I loved her honesty and openness, even though her beautiful mind was beginning to fail her. Most times our conversation would flow like normal but if asked about a specific detail of a recent event or about the family, she’d gloss over or laugh off an answer, because she couldn’t remember. After she moved into a nursing home when her husband could no longer care for her because of his own health issues, she couldn’t open her eyes. Sometimes I would get a few brief words out of her—and when my husband also visited, she clasped his hand tightly. She gave me many creative keepsakes over the years, some she made herself, and a ribbon bookmark she ordered for attendees at their “surprise” 50th wedding anniversary celebration.

The pastor who officiated at the brief graveside service, Peggy Packard, said Martha took special joy in the verse from John 11: 5, “Now Jesus loved Martha.” The verse of course add that Jesus also loved Mary her sister and their brother Lazarus. But my Martha felt blessed seeing the words “Jesus loved Martha” in the Bible. The same is true for all of us. Insert your own name there. Of course, Jesus later scolded Martha for being too concerned with fixing food and straightening the house when he visited.

Martha, Martha: rest in peace. Enter into the joy of our Lord.

***

What have you learned from an older person? Someone you loved and respected but was a year, or many years older than you?

***

In many countries of the world, the wisdom and lives and examples of elders are highly honored. How can we do better in North America?

Send comments or stories and perhaps I’ll share in a future column. Send to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.  

The Legacy We Leave

Another Way for week of January 1, 2021

The Legacy We Leave

I would never make a farmer, but I like to be busy like my father.

Instead of cleaning our house for company this Christmas (since none of the children were coming, as in many other families), I cleaned a house my father built over 25 years ago.

The house that Dad built, and Michelle repaired many years later.

The backstory: he was not a carpenter, but he enjoyed working with wood. After he could no longer farm and had difficulty walking, his busy mind got to work on projects which kept him inspired and helped to chase away cabin fever.

As he tinkered often in a wheelchair, he sometimes copied the things he saw in other people’s yards like trellises, wooden tulips, or wooden ducks. Then he branched into building toy barns because, as a farmer, it was what he knew. He took joy in keeping his own barns freshly painted “barn red.”

So he began to make and sell toy barns, and often donated them for charitable sales, especially Mennonite Relief Sales, well-known throughout the U.S.

He also built life-size outdoor playhouses (tall enough for small children to stand in) on order. But where his creativity and love truly came out was in building doll houses, or as my one grandson requested for this Christmas, a “toy house.” You don’t have to play with dolls to enjoy the fun of running cars and trucks through a house and into a garage, or putting flowers in tiny window boxes.

Edward, almost 2.5, pokes his head into one room and sings “hello, hello.”

So I loved cleaning up the toy house that had sat in our basement for over 15 years. The work made me remember my dad in ways that I do not think about on a daily basis any longer. The concentration and small smile on his face as he worked. How he designed various patterns for the doll houses and kept a notebook of those patterns and gave them names, such as the “Melodie house.” The way he tidied up his workshop at the end of each day. The look of joy and satisfaction on his face as he told us about his latest project.

Two happy campers. Michelle was much older than this when she repaired the house that now sits in their basement playroom.

As he neared the end of his life with increasing dementia, he began to have trouble remembering exactly how to put them together. That was sad for all of us to watch. My husband tried to help him when we visited but Dad made the same mistake over and over. Then one time when our oldest daughter Michelle was along, she found this very toy house had a broken porch roof from something falling on it. Using the tools and supplies her grandpa could no longer manage, she repaired the house herself, excited to present the finished product to her grandpa.

Pressing a carpet in place.

I have a feeling this toy house will be visited by superhero characters and dinosaurs and little astronauts as Michelle’s boys live in the made-up stories of their imaginations. In fact, on Christmas morning, as we watched the boys playing via Zoom with the new “toy house,” the oldest, James, told us, “the Transformers are all friends who own a farm and this is their house.” His mother told me later that even the Deceptions, who are the “bad guy” Transformers, are part of this friendly farm family.

My father, the peacemaking farmer, would love this newly established friendly house.

So, I enjoyed cleaning up the house destined for my grandsons, even though we lamented—greatly—that we couldn’t spend more than a few passing minutes with them—dropping off the toy house at their neighbors to hide until Christmas. We spent time together with all our children and grandchildren, spouses and a fiancé on Zoom on Christmas morning, and felt their love and excitement articulated in packages and “love you.”

Christmas morning downstairs in the family room, a real toy house awaited three little boys.

As I think about this, somehow my Dad’s—and my husband’s legacy was passed down to at least two of my daughters who don’t mind tinkering and fixing things way beyond my skill set. If I can leave a legacy like Dad and Mom for our grandchildren, we hope to look back on this Christmas as the year that was not much fun, but bearable through innovation, hard work and love expressed. How is it in your family?

***

If you have stories to share, comment here and I will consider them for a future column. Or send to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.  

The Unimaginable

Another Way for week of December 25, 2020

The Unimaginable

Recently I wrote about “The Unexpected.” This week I’ll tackle the unimaginable. Yep: the pandemic.

Early on, my Indiana friend and former co-worker Carol Honderich, launched a small Facebook campaign urging us all to show our masks.

I was standing in line at the grocery store the other day when the masks all around (thank goodness) put me in pause mode. I thought about how unimaginable the scene would have been to me last year at this time. To all of us. It would have been science fiction. A medical disaster movie.

We remember the first weeks of mask wearing, and the long long lines outside of Costco and Walmart, standing six feet apart. What country were we in? It felt like an old eastern European regime maybe.

My first haircut wearing a mask the whole time.

At our grocery store at first, no more than half of the people were wearing masks. I would glance at others, hoping to not catch any droplets, stiffening at someone sneezing, someone crowding too close. There were few children in stores at that time, which was wise, but so different. As children gradually started coming back out, wearing masks, the kiddos looked proud to be so grown up. I remember my four-year-old grandson telling his mommy as they waited in their van to pick up groceries, “Mommy, I need a mask.”

On a personal level, my husband had knee surgery just four days before the major U.S. lockdown the weekend of March 13. When we went to his second rehab session at a retirement wellness facility, we were stunned to find out he could not receive any more rehab there. We had been working with them for months anticipating the surgery, and now, oops, sorry, we don’t want you anymore. I don’t really blame them, they needed to protect their retirement community—and we don’t actually live there. But, what were we to do?

Later, Stuart had to have a manipulation to increase his recovery from knee surgery, so at that point he had to be tested for Covid. The process was almost painless and very efficient.

A local fellow writer and photographer/blogger suggested another rehab place we’d never heard of, and Stuart went on to successful rehabilitation there.

And my mother—who had unexpected surgery after a fall breaking her femur on February 20—was suddenly locked away from seeing my sister who lives nearby, or anyone other than healthcare workers. Unimaginable, of course. These things are routine now, we know the restrictions.

My two older grandsons—who grew up with tight family restrictions on screen time—were gradually shifted into screen overload: online learning over Zoom (but not without major hiccups in one school system where the technical networks were simply not up to speed for thousands of connections). These days, the two first graders are eager to get away from their computers at the end of “school” hours.

The day I went shopping for groceries and found nearly empty shelves in many aisles of the store, I wept silently. It seemed so unbelievable. My mind flashed back to the Russian guest in our home in the early 90s, who marveled at our full grocery store shelves. She picked up products and studied them.

A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined big tough smart well-paid football coaches standing on the sidelines of huge almost-empty stadiums wearing masks. What a sight, now commonplace.

If you had told me I would not attend services in my church building for ten for months, I would have said no way. That doesn’t mean we haven’t worshipped, prayed, reached out to others, fellowshipped the best we can. Certainly, this tests our faith and our faithfulness, but in spite of it all, I find my heart drawing nearer to the God of the universe, and the Jesus that I still follow and love. Mary and Joseph could not have imagined the trials that were ahead for them, either.

Our pastor preparing for a live taping of the Sunday morning church service to be shared over Facebook live.

We are lonely for loved ones this unimaginable holiday season, but as others have pointed out, those who serve in the military or Christian service and ministry around the world—they do not usually get to go home for the holidays. It is a surprise and an unusual year if they get that privilege.

My angel and church window, facing east on a snowy morning, pre-Christmas.

And so it goes. May you find hope and joy in the year ahead.

***

High point of your Christmas holidays? Low point?

How are friends and loved ones doing? Unload here, if you care to.

Comment here or send to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.  

A Good Time to Read

Another Way for week of December 13, 2020

A Good Time to Read

[With apologies to my blog readers; I got ahead of myself and posted the wrong newspaper column last week: this is the one that should have appeared last week.]

Time for my almost annual encouragement to read more books. I will not be the first columnist to point out that with the pandemic making most of us staying home more than normal, is a great time to read more books than normal. At least if you’re not ill. This year I have enjoyed reading each afternoon and evening—although I can never read for hours on end. Finish a book in one day? Not me. I would feel guilty and lazy and like I wasn’t “getting things done.” Instead, reading quiets me down for naps or bedtime.

My most recent long read was The Reckoning by lawyer/crime writer John Grisham (Random House, 2018). Grisham lives not far from here in Charlottesville, and has a home also in Mississippi. Occasionally he comes to our local university to conduct seminars called “Writers Hour.” I hope to go sometime.

In general, I found this book hard to read mainly because of a long middle throwback section where we follow main character Pete’s service in the Philippines in World War II. He ends up on the Bataan Death March which was known for terrible cruelty and random killings. Soldiers who fell while marching (because they were weak from illness or starving) were shot which was accompanied by laughter from enemy bystanders. I found the characters hard to identify with.

But I love novels set in the deep south (apparently so does Grisham) where I lived for a short portion of my life. One reviewer, Gregory Hunter, says “This book is a TRAGEDY, staged in small-town Mississippi immediately following WW II … Grisham is an expert at depicting the conflicting ways of the South’s ethics, politics, ethnic differences … I found it so much more than just another well-written legal thriller, and told by one of the best of America’s authors.” In the end, the novel makes the valuable point that forgiveness and love is crucial in family life.

The World War II setting brings me to another book I helped manage through the publishing process called Love in a Time of Hate: The Story of Magda and André Trocomé and the Village that Said No to the Nazis by Hanna Schott (Herald Press, 2017). The story of the Trocomés, who led efforts in one community in France to hide more than 3000 Jewish children and adults fleeing the Nazis, has been told in other books. But journalist Schott, from Germany, (who is also fluent in French and English) wrote this book for new audiences. Andre was a Christian pastor and both he and Magda offer shining examples of how some have been able to respond to injustice, hate, and horrible treatment with love and humanity. Basically, I love true stories over fiction, and powerful testimonies of those who’ve chosen a way other than hate and horror.

Speaking of true stories, I have another completely different book on my shelf I love to recommend. Simple Pleasures: Stories from My Life as an Amish Mother was written by Marianne Jantzi as one of the books in the Plainspoken series from Herald Press. Published in 2016, the book winsomely shares the ups and downs of true family life in her very conservative Amish home in a community in eastern Canada. Marianne is an accomplished writer and their adventures are endearing but not always easy. A great gift for those interested in true Amish stories—not a romantic book about the Amish. 

Finally, allow me to mention a book of seven fictional Christmas stories by a prolific author and blogger friend which I’m looking forward to reading: 100 Years of Christmas by Trisha Faye. Trisha is from Texas and her stories revolve around women and the ups and downs we all experience. You should be able to find it on Amazon.

Books are a great gift. Anytime!

[Again, I apologize that this is late for Christmas. But the long month of January is ahead and books are a great way to spend that gift card or Christmas cash you perhaps received.]

Comments? Post here or send to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.  

The Unexpected: Bearfence Hike at Shenandoah National Park (Skyline Drive)

Another Way for week of December 18, 2020

The Unexpected

We are fortunate to live within a 50-minute drive of Shenandoah National Park. My oldest grandson, Sam, (seven) has fallen in love with National Parks in general. He has a book about them and knows many names and locations. So hiking in our “local” park when they visited for Thanksgiving was a high priority. My oldest daughter and family with three sons (including a two-year-old), drove to the park too, but didn’t join the hike.

Sam wondered if we would see a bear like my husband and I did when we visited Denali National Park in Alaska last year. I told him we’ve been to Shenandoah park many many times and had never seen even one.

Both families and Grandpa at first overlook. And a surprise sighting!

When we pulled over at the very first overlook, my son-in-law got excited as he thought he was seeing a bear. His wife looked too and both said where to look. But of course even that much commotion scared the bear away (a good thing) and it went lumbering off before the children or my husband and I could spot it. Totally unexpected. Having Jon and Tanya see a bear was almost as good as seeing it ourselves. A 20-year park volunteer said he could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen a bear up there.

But the real highlight was a hike I never expected to make again, at least not with my husband. If you follow my column, you might recall he had knee replacement surgery around nine months ago. As we looked at hiking options, we finally decided on Bearfence trail which has a long rock scramble near the top. Elevation: 3620 feet. The total hike was a little over one mile. My husband way exceeded my expectations!

I wondered how the four-and-a-half-year-old grandson would do. Would he get tired or complain—or worse, hurt himself? We walked and climbed with great care—helping each other find the best route up the various rocky surfaces. We used upper arm strength to help pull ourselves up, and wedged our shoes and feet into firm places. The trail was not too busy but there were enough other hikers that we carefully stood aside, masks in place, to wait for others to go around us if they were younger and faster. I was amazed and proud to see Stuart navigating the rocky inclines. He took a climbing stick along that he would occasionally hand over to me so he could pull himself through.

At one point another couple who looked about our ages was also pausing. I joked that I was turning 69 next week and needed to rest. The other woman lit up and said “Oh, when is your birthday?” I told her when and she said hers is the following day and we laughed at this unanticipated coincidence.

And the kiddos? They rocked it, no pun intended. At one point the youngest was a little scared (can’t blame him) but his mother talked him through the fear. He was in obvious enjoyment most of the time. A lot of playgrounds have fake rock climbs, but this was the real thing. Not that they’d been able to go on playgrounds this year with the coronavirus restrictions.

We have entered the season of Advent where long ago, a young girl was told she was expecting a special baby who would come to rescue us all from ourselves. Mary met the news with great joy, but also questions. I have no idea yet what to expect for this Christmas season—probably more “aging in place” so to speak—not going out much, not seeing all the loved ones we’d love to see. It hurts and my heart pines for the pandemic to scale down safely and fade into history.

Our parents and grandparents have been through many difficult times, as my 96-year-old mother reminds me. She remembers how terrible the World War II years were, and how they longed for the “normal.” Let us treasure deep joy in our hearts like Mary as we enter this season of the unexpected.

***

Have you had unexpected surprises in this year? Could be good or not so good or downright difficult.

How do you stay open to the goodness of God and of other people?

One more week to enter my drawing for one of two books from Herald Press, Love in a Time of Hate or Simple Pleasures. Send name and email or address to me. Indicate which you’d rather receive. (I’ll draw two names.) Deadline: December 24. Send to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Call us two happy hikers!

See below for a trail map and some more photos from our excursion!

A Simple Childhood Desk

Another Way for week of December 4, 2020

A Christmas Present for Your Kids or Grandkids?

My two first grader grandsons both have small and simple desks now at their homes.

I’m envious. I’m thrilled for them, NOT because of the corona virus which at this point means they’re learning by Zoom (and other forms of technology) instead of in classrooms, but because I know how much I would have loved to have a desk at home.

My father, a farmer, had a desk and I guess that is what made me wish I had one as a child. We loved playing school and sometimes would use his desk as a teacher’s desk (careful to clean it up afterwards of course!). I didn’t even mind helping him clean it out occasionally because there was just something neat and organized about his desk.

Eventually Daddy made a cupboard in the dining room for us to hang up our coats and hats, with drawers at the bottom. We four kids each had a personal drawer for desky type of stuff: crayons, pencils, scissors, glue, school papers. And then we studied either at the dining room or kitchen table, or sometimes in the living room or our bedrooms. But none of us had desks.

Then before my senior year of high school, we moved to north Florida. I was excited, not only to be a “new girl in school,” but to have a room of my own for which I got to choose new bedroom furniture. My two older sisters had shared a bedroom, and then my middle sister and I shared it. But the bedroom suite was deemed too old and rickety to move to Florida. Soon after moving we went to a furniture store in a nearby city and I got to pick out my bed, dresser, and chest of drawers.

But I still wanted a desk. I think Mom and Dad said if I paid for it myself, I could have a desk. I worked some at babysitting and housecleaning, so it was not unreasonable for them to say I would need to pay for it myself.

I’m not sure if I picked out the cheapest desk I could find in the store, or in a catalog: it had only one drawer and it was triangular in shape to fit in the empty corner I had in my moderately sized bedroom.

My corner desk in my bedroom in Florida–the only photo I have of it!

Whatever, I was ecstatic to set up my own desk, with a lamp and stuff in the single drawer. I’m sure it cost less than $80 (1969).

A local teacher, Laura-Paige Keller poses with desks made by her father-in-law.

So I especially appreciated an article in our local paper, the Daily News Record, about a teacher who noticed her students mostly did not have desks to use for their class work at home via Zoom. Megan Williams, a reporter for our newspaper quoted Laura Paige Keller saying her students were often “laying on their beds during Zoom lessons, or on the floor. They clearly lacked a proper desk with which to learn.”

Laura mentioned this lack to her father-in-law who came up with a simple design where he could build desks out of plywood quite rapidly. The top of the desk is a simple box with an open side, and four legs, well-sanded. The school sent out a survey to families to find out who might need or want one. Forty-three families responded and Mr. Keller contacted a Lowes store to see if they might give him a deal on plywood (which was $48 a sheet at that time). In a couple weeks Lowes came through donating nine sheets of plywood for the project. Later Keller also built and offered small stools for the children.

Daily News Record photo showing desks and stools up close.

“It was so sweet to see their smiles,” said teacher Laura. “The parents were also overjoyed and grateful.”

Which brings me to suggest that even if you don’t have building skills, someone you know might be able to build a simple desk (I’ll share a photo on my blog of the desks). Or purchase an inexpensive one? What a great Christmas present for some child!

A writer’s haven at home.

***

Did you have a desk as a child, or other favorite place you could do homework?

How about now: Do you have a desk or would you rather curl up in a chair or on the couch?

How are your children or grandchildren coping with their classes and school work? I’d love to hear!

Comment here or write to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.  

Homemade Cracker Jack – Vernon U. Miller’s recipe

Ready to tackle making cracker jack for the end-of-year holidays still to come?

The moment we’ve all been waiting for. A few years back. My sister-in-law Barbara and her husband Richard in the background, along with my oldest daughter and husband at the sink.

We actually made it closer to New Year’s Day, because with the array of sweets that are normally available at your typical Christmas dinner, cracker jack with its cups of various sugars can provide simply too much of a tasty thing. It is truly a family project, with at least three people working together. So it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead.

My dad (and all of us) loved making cracker jack—in fact we begged him to make it—but it always turned him into a bit of a captain barking out orders that we hastened to follow. Mom recalls how frantic she became hunting for the stirring paddle, because when you only use something once a year, you don’t tend to remember where it was/is stored.

Now that my husband and I have attempted a few turns at making cracker jack ourselves, I understand the need to pay attention to things like stirring the syrup until the exact moment when it begins to be brittle and break “like glass” when you test it, and more.

This recipe is not for the faint of heart, but in our opinion, is much better than many simpler and easier recipes for cracker jack. So here is the somewhat famous “Vernon Miller’s Special” Cracker Jack as published in the North Goshen Mennonite women’s cookbook in the early 1960s. (I previously shared it on Amish Wisdom blog but not here on my own blog.)

Please read the entire recipe for instructions before you start. I have adapted Dad’s recipe somewhat and added what I hope are helpful improvements and cautions.

“Vernon Miller Special” Cracker Jack

4 gallons homemade popcorn, popped
1 16-oz. bottle white Karo syrup
1 cup sorghum molasses (not “Grandma Molasses” brand)
2 cups white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup water
½ pound butter, or two sticks
1 pound peanuts (my husband says 2 pounds is better)

Directions: One person can start popping homemade popcorn first, enough to make about 4 gallons. Set aside keeping popcorn warm in large ovenproof container, on lowest oven setting.

In large pan or Dutch oven, combine next five ingredients (the sweets plus the water). Heat on medium, stirring constantly with large spoon. Bring to a boil and cook until ready to test in a glass measuring cup that has about a cup of ice-cold water in it. Drip a small thread of syrup into the water and try breaking the thread. You want it to break like glass and not “taffy” or stick in the teeth. Keep testing the syrup until it “breaks.” At that point, add butter to the syrup mixture, and boil again, stirring constantly, until it breaks again. (Again if it taffies, it is not ready.)

When the syrup mixture is ready, have one person quickly pour all warm popcorn and peanuts into a five-gallon stainless steel kettle on the floor (protecting floor with a clean kitchen rug or towels. The syrup and popcorn are easier to stir together if lowered). One person should pour the hot syrup mixture into the kettle (caution, the syrup can burn bare skin) into the popcorn/peanuts, and another, using a large spoon or long paddle, mix the syrup and popcorn together.

(My husband made a paddle of poplar wood which has worked well). Using potholders, another person should hold down the kettle so it stays flat on the floor while one continues the stirring-in process until all or most of the popcorn is well covered.

Paddle my husband made.

When well mixed and still warm, pour the whole mixture out onto a clean, clear table or counter to cool off. Then spread it out and begin eating! Some people put it into balls at this point, but that makes eating small parts of it harder later, (to bite into a hard popcorn ball). We always just left the cracker jack loose to pick up and enjoy a few pieces for snacks for weeks afterwards. Soak the empty kettle immediately in water so you can clean it later.

Store the remaining cracker jack in a container(s) with a tight lid.

***

Amish cookbook author Lovina Eicher frequently reminds folks in her syndicated newspaper column when neighbors, family, and friends pitch in to help, “many hands make light work.” Her The Essential Amish Cookbook contains one popcorn ball recipe. Her newest cookbook is below.

Or, buy some from Shirley’s Popcorn, another “Mennonite” specialty. It is tops and helps a small business! There are also 7 local locations in Ohio, Virginia, and Indiana.  

***

Or tell us about your favorite “must have” holiday treat!

Memories of My Grandma Miller

Another Way for week of November 27, 2020

Memories Creep Back and Make Connections

I had the oddest going-to-sleep memories filling my brain the other night. I had read a devotional in Rejoice! by Charlotte Hardt, a retired registered nurse who not only has grandchildren, but a great grandchild. She remembers sitting between her grandparents during church and loving it when her grandma slipped her peppermint candies during the sermon.

In my case it was Grandpa who was known for slipping kids wintergreen peppermints when they came up to him after the church service. And my dad carried forward the tradition, at least for a while.

All of a sudden my own grandmother popped into my mind. The one who lived in the apartment attached to our farm home in northern Indiana.

Grandpa Uriah Miller and Grandma Barbara Miller (probably in her early 80s.)

I started trying to remember what made her special. I knew her from approximately six months until I was 11. Since my oldest grandsons are now seven, I know the impressions and memories they are forming with us are long lasting.

Grandma Miller was plump, no doubt it, and her roundness (especially when she was younger) was nothing but comforting when she enveloped you in a hug. She had “sugar diabetes” as we called back it then, and she watched her sugar. I remember seeing the strips of testing paper she kept in their very tiny bathroom. My mother recalls Grandma bringing over the test strips for her to see: blue meant her level of sugar was good, and orange was bad. Eventually she had a stroke.

Their biggest room was a bedroom/living room combo where Grandpa’s legendary and historic grandfather clock stood in one corner. We loved to help Grandpa wind his clock. There was a china cabinet holding Grandma’s special antique dishes, and two chairs for them including a rocker (which I now have in my bedroom). Grandma Miller (her name was Barbara) would allow me to handle and play with some of the cabinet items including a small yellow plastic salt and pepper shaker in a basket. I loved it and asked her if I could have it when she was gone. She talked about such things often, so it wasn’t like I was anxious for her to die. It was quite unimaginable for me, because they were always there and my parents enjoyed having live-in babysitters, as my mother will still admit.

Salt and pepper shaker: so tiny, so cute, so old! The salt and pepper are at least 80 years old, I’m guessing.

Their apartment included a very small porch to the east where trellises held climbing roses in summer. When Grandma died at age 85, Grandpa carried a fresh rose each day to the funeral home, to put in her hands. Their marriage and love last 67 years through bad times and good. May we all be so fortunate.

What will your grandkids remember about you?

Perhaps more than anything, we want things to stay the same at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, right?

–The same toys you played with the last time. For my girls they always wanted to play with my mother’s corn elevator and wagonload of kernels that they’d always scatter all over the carpet.
–The always-read books should be out—oh, maybe a new one now and then.
–The same foods we love.
–The house to smell the same.
–A big hug and kiss (maybe, for the willing).
–The familiar clothes.
–The rocker in the same place.

Some things have to change. My father eventually got to the point that he realized the message he was sending to children at church contradicted the things parents were teaching about not accepting candy from a stranger.

Grandma Miller, after she had a stroke.

Finally, we learn that grandparents don’t last forever, and we cherish them even more, somehow, after they are gone. If yours are still living, make sure they know you love them even across the miles.

***

Your own strongest memory of a grandmother?

What will you grandchildren remember about you?

Heirlooms you love?

Comment here or send to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com,

or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.  

If You Are Swimming in Turkey Leftovers

Easy Turkey or Chicken Casserole

Got turkey leftovers?

You’re either a casserole lover, or you’re not. My husband is not so much. Turkey leftovers? Just put them in endless sandwiches for him. But he tries to be polite. I prefer a little variety.

So, if you’ve got turkey leftovers like we do and you’ve tired of plain sandwiches, here’s a recipe from a longtime church friend, Lauren. I first met her when she was an adorable (and talkative!) red-headed five-year-old. I’ve watched her grow up, went to her wedding, watched them raise two adorable little boys who are now fine young men, and Lauren herself is an awesome teacher, cook, and now a mother-in-law. Lauren gave me this so long ago I can barely read some of the words on it. You probably have most of the ingredients on hand.

Lauren’s Chicken Casserole (Or turkey as the case may be)

For 4-6 people

4-5 chicken breasts or 6-8 chicken thighs, (or 2 cups chopped turkey leftovers)
8 ounces sour cream (or plain yogurt)
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup (or make your own white sauce)
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt, pepper, and other spices to taste (I added dried basil and a bit of Italian seasoning)
Stuffing mix (Lauren likes Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing)

Skin chicken and boil until tender. Let cool, remove from bones, and cut into bite size pieces. (Chop roasted turkey leftovers to bite size.)

Mix the sour cream and soup until smooth. Add Worcestershire, salt, pepper, (and other spices if you’re using) and blend well. Add chicken/turkey pieces to sauce and mix together well.

Pour into greased medium casserole dish. Add thick layer (at least ½ inch thick) of stuffing.

Cover and bake at 350 degree 35-45 minutes. Remove cover for about last 10 minutes.

Other options: I also topped the casserole with 1/3 cup almond slivers, since I had them on hand. I browned the almond slices in a bit of butter first.

Enjoy!

Whatever Happened to Dinner? Recipes and Reflections for Family Mealtime by [Melodie M. Davis]

In my book Whatever Happened to Dinner? I share a beautiful story from Lauren and one of her sons which you might enjoy too. Plus over 100 recipes in the book from my work colleagues and my own collection, and stories on how to keep family mealtime. Check it out here:

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