The Name on the Diet Coke Bottle

For the second summer in a row, Coca-Cola is putting first names on bottles and cans of Diet Coke, Coke, the boy’s version of Diet Coke whose name I forget (black label), and that odd one with the green label (anybody remember New Coke?)  I’ve been amused by this ed-cc-sq 750xx900-506-0-26and noticing which names I get when I buy a bottle at my local pizza places.  I have yet to see my name, although says it is in circulation, so to speak.

Most of the names I’ve seen are very millenial or younger, Ashleys and Justins and Maxes and Courtneys, etc.  But last week I saw one that really surprised me.  Everything old–really old–is new again, and I knew Jesse has been a popular name for a while.  Emma is back, Charlotte is back (as a baby princess), and I’m wondering if George will make a comeback now that little Prince George is on the scene.  The name that stopped me was Preston.

My uncle Preston was my dad’s youngest brother.  If he were living he would be over 90 now.   Uncle Preston didn’t farm, unlike most of his family, but owned a garage and worked as a mechanic.  Back in the day, the men would come and hang out at the garage, smoking cigarettes and drinking Cokes.  They had nicknames for each other and told stories about what they’d done and seen.

Beetle was named after Beetle Bailey because he had been in the Army.  A cousin was called Goat for reasons that weren’t clear to me as a child.  My aunt Eunice’s husband was called Tip.  Several went by their initials, a grand old Southern tradition, so I had cousins known as W. P. and W. C.  I have to look them up in another cousin’s geneaology book to find out what their full names were.

It was at Uncle Preston’s garage that Daddy fell off a truck he was working on, and broke his arm.  In the winter it was a cozy hangout despite its concrete walls and floor and tin roof because the wood-burning stove was always fired up.  Winters could be lonely in the country, so the men were happy to have somewhere they could go and gossip besides the country store.

I can see Uncle Preston now and hear Aunt Mary Emma shrieking out the kitchen door, “PRESTOOOON!  DINNER!”  So, thanks, Coca-Cola, for bringing that memory back!


A White Rose on Mother’s Day

I’m sharing this again for Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day to all, also remembering the mothers we have lost!


My mother

When I was growing up, Mother’s Day was a big event at the First Baptist Church in Clarksville. Brother Laida always preached about Biblical mothers (with not too much emphasis on Mary, mother of Jesus) and sometimes a segue into Ruth and her loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi.

The most interesting thing to me about the church service, however, was that everyone wore a rose or a carnation to church that day. I asked Mother about it when I was
small. “You wear a red rose or carnation if your mother is alive, and a white one if she’s not,” she said. Mother and Daddy each wore a white carnation and I wore a red one, all bought at the grocery store on Saturday. In later years when we lived on the farm Iwore a red rose pinned to my dress from the old-fashioned rosebush that spilled over…

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Dogwood Winter

The other day I was talking to a young woman in my company’s North Carolina office.  I mentioned something about “redbud winter,” and she had no idea what I meant.  She’s not from North Carolina but settled there after going to college in the state.  So I explainedDSCN0102 about the “winters” that come during spring in the South, and she was enchanted.  I’ll share with my friends in case you don’t know.

I learned from my mother that in the South there are always cold snaps in the spring that coincide with when various trees and bushes bloom.  Redbud winter is the first one, when the redbud trees show their pinkish-purple blossoms.  They look like purple flames by the side of the road or in the underbrush of the woods.  A few weeks later comes dogwood winter, when the dogwoods open their lateral drifts of ivory flowers. They are my favorites, as elegant and spare as a Japanese ink drawing.  The last one is blackberry winter, when the blackberry bushes bloom in late spring.  When you see the blooms, you know there will be a few days of chilly weather.

One of the adjustments I’ve had to make to life in New York is that the whole spring season is very much compressed.  Instead of six to eight weeks, commencing with forsythia and the blooming bulbs, and ending with wisteria and the trees fully leaved, there is a hectic period of about a month.  This year everything was two weeks late due to the late snows we had.  So now the ornamental trees are blooming at the same time as the forsythia and the tulips and buttercups.  The willow trees are leafing.  And the dogwoods have not yet appeared.

Perhaps the cold spell this week will be dogwood winter, and my favorite trees will bloom.  No matter what may go wrong in the world, spring always manages to come somehow.  And the patterns in nature don’t change.  I can imagine my grandmother or great-grandmother looking out the kitchen window at the dogwoods blooming under the taller trees, and saying to herself, “It’ll be cold tomorrow.”

How I Learned to Drive, and My Dad

I want to apologize to my faithful followers (you know who you are) for taking such a long hiatus.  It’s been a very long, cold winter, and I just lost the energy to write somehow.  I meant to get this one out in February in memory of my father.  Better late than never, I65-dart-charger suppose.  And now that the snow is receding, maybe my juices will start rising, too.

February is the month when Daddy died, many years ago, not long after I graduated from college.  I think my love of cars comes from him.  He was a good mechanic and worked on all our cars, mostly at my uncle Preston’s garage.  Over the years our cars ranged from a turquoise Studebaker to a pale yellow Dodge Dart with pushbuttons to change gears, and a red Plymouth Sport Fury with bucket seats in between those two.  I also recall a battered station wagon of indeterminate breed at some point, and any number of beat-up old trucks for use on the farm.

Daddy was not a good driving teacher, however.  He tried to teach Mother, long before I was born.  She said he made her nervous, and words were exchanged.  She left the car in a huff, and never learned to drive.  Mother was dependent her whole life on other people to drive her to do errands, buy groceries, or go to church. This was not uncommon in country women of her age, but it surely was an inconvenience and limited her freedom.

I was determined to get my learner’s permit and my license as soon as it was legal for me to drive.  I couldn’t take a driver’s course because I couldn’t get to the classes, since Daddy was at work, Mother couldn’t drive, and I didn’t have a license.  So I got the booklet to study and got ready for the written test on my own.  Once my permit arrived, I was ready to go!

I had a lot of theory about driving, but very little practice other than steering a tractor.  So I asked Daddy to help me practice.  He showed me how to brake and hit the gas.  Then he turned me loose to practice in a field in back of the house.  My brother had abandoned a scarred-up Volkswagen Beetle at our house on the farm at some point, which didn’t have a license plate and was scarcely capable of moving.  So Daddy put some gas in it from a can and left me to practice driving around the field.

Everything went well at first, although I didn’t know how to change gears with a stick shift.  I just went around and around the field in first gear, steering and practicing turn signals.  Then I decided I was bored and wanted to stop for a while, so I hit the brake.  No response!  Granted, the car was going very slow, but it didn’t have any brakes left.  Well, I thought, how long before it runs out of gas?  I knew there wasn’t much left in the tank.

So I went around and around and around until it started slowing down even more.  This was my chance.  I steered it into the back bumper of Daddy’s latest battered truck.  There was a little bump, and then the engine died.  I hopped out and abandoned it.

Daddy never asked me what happened.  And my next practice session was in the yellow Dodge Dart with him.


Homegrown vs. Store-bought

I was shopping the other day, looking at whole chickens in the grocery store.  The prices ranged from $2.99/lb. for factory-farmed, on-special chickens to $14.99/lb. for organic,

Photo by Niall Kennedy
Photo by Niall Kennedy

free-range, kosher chickens.  I gasped at the price, and then I remembered my mother’s reaction to free-range chickens.

Mother grew up on a small farm before the Great Depression, and they raised their own chickens and hogs, churned their own butter, grew vegetables, and mostly bought staples like flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt.  They canned and preserved everything they could for the coming winter.

People think of this now as healthy, organic and being close to nature.  It actually was due to poverty and lack of other alternatives!  If the garden did poorly or the winter supplies ran out, there were days when dinner was biscuits and gravy made from bacon grease.  You didn’t kill a chicken until its laying capability was past.  Then it was killed and cooked, and often it was stringy and tough.

By the time I was a teenager we were living on a farm again, after some years living in a small town and a brief sojourn in Texas due to Daddy’s job.  Money was an issue again, so we had a vegetable garden, and Mother and I canned and froze quarts and quarts of vegetables.  We did not raise chickens, but Aunt Lou, Mother’s sister, did, and we bought eggs from her when she had them to spare.  Otherwise we shopped at the store for eggs and for chicken to cook.

Aunt Lou’s chickens were truly free-range, brown hens pecking around the yard, but they did get chicken feed to eat and had a coop to roost in.  They laid lovely brown eggs with rich yellow yolks.  Occasionally Aunt Lou would offer Mother a freshly killed chicken.  Mother always accepted it and thanked her, but her private reaction was different.  “These things are tough and gamey,” she said.  “I’d rather have a nice clean one from the store!”  Not to mention that she had to pluck and clean the homegrown, free-range chicken.  And she was right, the flavor was stronger, and they were not tender.

I think of Mother whenever I see the high prices on those in the store.  There should be a middle way between factory farming and having hens in your back yard, and it shouldn’t cost $14.99 per pound!

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Today is my birthday.  My friends gave a surprise birthday party for me, something I’ve never had before!  It was so much fun and truly a surprise.  My sisters have another celebration waiting for me, which will happen next weekend.  And I’m going out with friends tonight, so the party keeps going.

I’ve been thinking about this birthday because it’s older than I ever thought I would be, in my smug youth, and because I realized I’m not much younger than my mother was in thisMother and Me Daytona 1981 picture.  I thought she was so old then!  And now it seems just another stage to me.

I think the big difference may be health.  Mother had a couple of heart attacks which were not diagnosed at the time, and when this photo was taken she was in the early stages of heart failure.  We didn’t know, of course.  I had driven to Tennessee from Atlanta to get her, and we drove down to St. Augustine and Daytona Beach.  Mother had never been to Florida and never seen the ocean.  This was after Labor Day, in early September, 1981, so the summer crowds were gone, and she enjoyed sitting on the beach at Daytona talking to “snowbirds” who were around her age.

I took her to Sea World, and she could barely walk from one show or exhibit to the next.  She was exhausted all the time.  When I got her back home, I called one of my sisters and said, “Something’s wrong with Mother.”  Glenda took her to a different doctor, and the damage was diagnosed.  I’ve been conscious of how heart disease affects women, particularly women in my family, ever since.  Heaven knows I don’t do as much as I could to stay healthy, but I do try.  And I think I’ve had much better medical care than she did.

Another difference from my mother is purely cosmetic–thanks to every colorist I’ve gone to for years, my gray goes away!  I have to keep working, and I want to keep working, so I can’t afford to go gray.  Sad, but true.

Mother thought of herself as “old” from a relatively young age.  I remember her telling me she was old when I was about 12, so she would have been 50!  Standards were different in her day.

I do think we all pursue continued youth too hard sometimes in this day and age.  Things do change, we do slow down a bit, we do get tired more easily.  But we don’t have to stop.  As long as our health holds up, my friends are active and interested and still engaged with the world.  I plan to be, too.


Summer Without a Swimsuit

No, this is not a post about skinny-dipping!  This is a story about tanning, or, rather, the lack of it.  I remember two of my older sisters lying out in the sun for hours, slathering

Chico and me on the farm
Chico and me on the farm

themselves with baby oil infused with iodine (yes, really.)  The quest for a golden tan was the primary pursuit of any summer.

I was always ghost-pale, and a real tan was never in my scope.  Nevertheless, I tried, covering myself in SPF 6 and feeling virtuous that I wore sun protection.  When I was in high school and college, I spent the hot part of my summer days on the farm lying on a lounge chair in the sun on the front walk, sweating in 90-degree-plus heat and humidity.  My faithful German shepherd panted underneath my chair for a while, then moved to the shade.  He only re-emerged to drink the last drops of Nehi orange from my bottle (one of his tricks.)  And the end result for me was never better than pale beige.  Fortunately, I couldn’t stand the pain of a sunburn, so I did tend to give up and go in when I felt my skin get hot.

Twenty years later damage began to appear, but not at first from sun exposure.  I had been given X-ray treatments and sun lamp treatments for acne as a teenager.  The dermatologist who spotted my first basal cell carcinoma said those treatments were probably the cause, but that sun exposure didn’t help, and I should never have worn anything less than SPF 15 in the sun.  But who knew, back then?  It was a dermatologist who gave me the treatments that did the damage, and thought it was cutting-edge.

So the end result is I’ve had several skin cancers removed, and I’m now in the land of large hats and SPF 50 every day to prevent incidental exposure.  This is the first summer I can remember where I didn’t even put on a swimsuit and cover myself in a waterproof coating of sunscreen to get wet in a pool on a hot day.  It just seemed like too much trouble for too little enjoyment.

So unless I rush out at the end of the day today before the pool closes for the season, it’s my first summer without a swimsuit.

My Last Aunt

My father was born in 1913, toward the middle of a family of 10 children.  Mother was born in 1916, in the middle of a family of five children.  I am the youngest in my family of

Aunt Agnes at 90
Aunt Agnes at 90

five, 19 years younger than my oldest sister. So I grew up with a multitude of aunts and uncles, first cousins, second cousins, and even a couple of great-aunts in addition to my grandfather, when I was small.

I only have one aunt left out of all that multitude–27 aunts and uncles by blood or marriage when I was born (one had died young), and just one surviving now.  Aunt Agnes is 90 years old, born in 1924, Daddy’s youngest sister and 11 years younger than he was.

My sister Sherrie and I went to see her a few weeks ago when I made a quick visit back to Tennessee.  Aunt Agnes is still living on her own at her insistence, and with the assistance of her two children who take turns visiting every day and checking on her.  They wanted to get someone to live with her, but Aunt Agnes wouldn’t agree to it.  They had to take her car keys away a few years ago after she had a wreck and narrowly avoided a really bad accident.  She had a stroke a few months ago and recovered well, but she is unsteady on her feet now and has trouble with her short-term memory.

Aunt Agnes has always been a curious combination of unconventional and conventional.  She stayed in a painful marriage until her husband died, probably because divorce was shameful to her and her family.  Yet she worked at Fort Campbell as a civilian employee for many years, raising her family as a working mom.  Not a common thing in the ’50s and ’60s, even in the ’70s!  She’s always been devoted to her church and is a firm believer, but never to my knowledge cast aspersions at people in her family (like me, and some others I could name) who did not always live the way good Southern Baptists are supposed to live.  With her, family comes first, and her fondness for a relative goes a long way, even with a wayward niece like me.

Since the stroke she’s lost her appetite and has become quite thin and frail.  While Sherrie and I were there, Sherrie asked her if she wanted to have lunch.  Aunt Agnes had forgotten it was lunchtime.  She mentioned how she missed going to Captain D’s after church on Sunday, so I went through the drive-through and brought back that nasty, salty, fried fish for us all.  She ate maybe three bites.

I was surprised to get a card from her this week–I wasn’t sure if the stroke had affected her ability to write.  Inside was a perfectly clear and coherent note, and a $20 bill to pay for the lunch.  “Do not send the money back,” she wrote, and underlined it.  In her mind I’m still little Connie.  She’s the last one to remember me that way.


For Mother’s Day

My mother died almost 10 years ago, at a pretty advanced age given her state of health.  I always miss her, I always will.  Here’s a list of things I would (or wouldn’t) do if I could

Fronie Bowers Jones
Fronie Bowers Jones

have just a few hours with her again.

I would listen to her and not lose my temper, sniff or complain.  Even when she narrates everything she’s doing as she’s doing it, or comments on every single thing or person we pass in the car!

I would hug her more often.

I would bring her little luxuries more often than I did.  I tried to bring small presents, especially jewelry, whenever I traveled somewhere exotic or new, and she loved that.

I wouldn’t tell her that I hated salmon croquettes.  They were her favorite, so she thought they had to be mine as well.

I would believe her advice and act on it.  Well, maybe not.

I would break that bushel of green beans she promised to Aunt Eunice and only grumble once.

I would understand why she spoiled my brother, and why she never stopped trying to change me into a different person from the one I am.

I would kiss her soft, old, wrinkled cheek.  That would be best of all.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there, and to all of us who ever had one!



March Madness and My Mother

A girls basketball team from 1922 (not my mother's team)
A girls basketball team from 1922 (not my mother’s team)

When the NCAA playoffs roll around I think of Mother every year.  She was a huge college basketball fan.  Her favorites were Kentucky, and, after I went there, Tennessee.  Even after she had had strokes and was in the nursing home she still liked to watch the March Madness games.  She couldn’t say much about the games but her dark eyes were alert as she watched the boys run up and down the court.  She liked the women’s games, too, once they started televising them.

Mother played high school basketball herself at Woodlawn School, a country school which didn’t even grant a diploma when she and Daddy were there.  Girl’s basketball in those days was a different animal from now.  In fact, it didn’t change until 1970.

Girls played in half courts.  Let me explain.  Your team’s defense couldn’t cross the center line, and your team’s offense was on the other half of the court and couldn’t cross the line.  The opposing team had the same restrictions, so as a defensive player your entire object was to get the ball to your offense at half-court so they could run and score.

I think the logic was that girls couldn’t or shouldn’t run the length of a basketball court.  Can you imagine?  But, honestly, this was the accepted method for girls to play (in baggy uniforms and mostly covered up.) By 1970 people were getting used to the idea that girls were not delicate flowers.  I mean, how do you think a man would hold up in childbirth?  Seriously.

I was always sorry Mother never got a chance to play full-court basketball.  When I was a kid she would shoot baskets with me, but she was very heavy and got out of breath pretty fast.  I can imagine her as a willowy young girl, racing down the court and shooting.  She would have been pretty good.

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