Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Feast For Oscar

Today's post is a Thanksgiving story published in a children's magazine a few years ago. It is one that all might enjoy as we celebrate this American holiday with gratitude and sharing. Enjoy your holiday break.  Look for a new post next Monday.

A Feast For Oscar
By Nancy Julien Kopp

“Turkey!” shouted three boys in the back row of Miss Edwards’ fourth grade class.

“What else?” our teacher asked.

Melissa Martin waved her hand. “How about sweet potatoes and cranberries?”

We were listing foods people usually eat for Thanksgiving. Thinking of all those good things made my mouth water and my stomach growl like a hungry lion. I raised my hand and waved it back and forth so Miss Edwards would call on me.

“Yes Tim,” she said.

I added my Thanksgiving favorite. “How about stuffing for the turkey?”

Nearly everyone in our class named something—everyone except for Oscar Livingood.

Miss Edwards strolled between the rows of desks. “Oscar, what will you have for this special dinner?” she asked.
Oscar ducked his head and mumbled words that sounded like, Cereal, I guess.”
The class roared with laughter. I laughed long and hard at what Oscar had said. Oscar was a real comic.
Miss Edwards held up her hand for quiet, then asked Oscar, “Are you sure?”
Oscar kept his eyes on the desktop. “Pretty sure. That’s what we have most nights.”
Miss Edwards patted Oscar on the head and returned to the front of the room.
We waited. What would she say now?
“Take out your English books and turn to page 67.”
That was it. She never mentioned Oscar’s strange remark. Instead, she erased the long list of foods on the chalkboard and the subject of Thanksgiving dinner was dropped.
I walked home from school alone that day. I couldn’t stop thinking about Oscar. The guy had a funny name and it sounded life he ate funny, too. Maybe he wasn’t trying to amuse us, maybe he was serious.
I ran into the house letting the screen door slam behind me. I cringed and waited for Mom to yell “Don’t slam that door!” but she didn’t say a word. She was at the kitchen table writing.
I grabbed an apple from the bowl on the counter and peered over her shoulder. “Hey Mom, what are you doing?”
She smiled but kept on writing. “I’m making a grocery list for Thanksgiving. There are so many extra things to buy when you create a super-duper, fantastic feast like w’ll have next week. Your Gran is coming and so is Uncle Pete.”
I said, “Get lots of good stuff. I’m saving up to eat enough for two people.” Mom’s list included all my favorites—turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, potatoes and sweet potatoes. On and on it went. “Yum, I can’t wait for Thanksgiving.”
“We have a lot to be thankful for.” Mom said. “Not everyone can afford to buy all these extra things for a holiday dinner.”
Her comment made me think of Oscar, and I didn’t like the picture forming in my mind. Would Oscar and his mom sit at their table with nothing but two bowls of cereal? I
shook my head a little to clear the picture away and went upstairs to start on my homework.
The next day I watched Oscar Livingood. He needed a haircut and his clothes looked pretty worn and raggedy. Most days, Oscar faded into the background because he didn’t have much to say. .Maybe that’s why I never paid much attention to him before. Now, all I could think of was the bowl of cereal he’d eat for Thanksgiving dinner.
On Monday morning, Miss Edwards announced that the class would make up a basket of food for a needy family for a class project. By the day before Thanksgiving, cans and boxes rested in the basket our teacher had provided. Even Oscar slipped a can of soup in with the rest. Miss Edwards would add a turkey at the last minute.
We held a drawing to determine who would go with the teacher to deliver the basket. I drew one of the lucky tickets, and so did Oscar. After school, we climbed into Miss Edwards’ van.  She stopped at the market to pick up the turkey and we were off to visit the family whose name had been given to us. They knew we were coming, but even so, their faces lit up with happiness when they opened the door. The mother and father thanked us over and over, and three little kids fingered the big basket.
On the way home, I said to Oscar, “It’s good to help people who really need help, isn’t it?
Oscar grinned and pushed his long hair off his forehead. “They’ll remember this Thanksgiving for a long time. They’ll know somebody cared.”

Suddenly, the bowl of cereal popped into my head again. “Oscar, who are you going to be with tomorrow?”

“Just my mom.”
That night I tossed and turned in my bed while I dreamed about giant boxes of cereal marching in a parade. When I woke up, I knew what my plan for the day would be. First, I’d talk to Mom and Dad and tell them about Oscar and his mother. Next, I would walk down to Oscar’s house and invite them to join us at our dinner table. I wanted him to know somebody cared about him, too. Oscar was not going to eat cereal on Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thanksgiving Is Perfect For Writing Family Stories

Through the years this blog has been in existence, I have urged readers to write their family stories. We tell them around the table when families gather as many will do in only a couple of days as we celebrate Thanksgiving. That's wonderful but as time goes on and the elders in the family are no longer present at the table, the stories will get lost. 

Someone needs to write them so that future generations will have some family history. Write one story at a time and keep it in  notebook, perhaps a loose leaf binder so that you can continue to add to it easily. Many people begin the project and feel it is too overwhelming to write ALL those stories so they write a few and quit. The key to overcoming that is to write only one story and wait awhile before starting on another. If writing that first story motivates you to keep going, all the better, but the stories do not have to be written all at once. 

When you're reminded of something that happened in the family, jot down some notes. Keep a small notebook handy for these little reminders. 

Don't back out of the project with the excuse that I'm not a writer. I can't do this. Yes, you can. To make a Family Stories Book, you do not have to be a professional writer. Your family is not going to judge the writing; they will appreciate that you made the effort to preserve these tales. 

A few things to keep in mind when you write:
  • write one story at a time
  • include first and last names
  • use dates, exact or approximate, if you know them
  • include sensory details (taste, sight, sound, touch and smell) to make your story come alive
  • include why the story is memorable for you--good or bad
  • write the sad or difficult stories as well as the happy or funny ones--they are a part of the family history, too
  • get in the habit of using action verbs instead of lots of is, are, were verbs--your stories will sing
  • length is not an issue, no story too short or too long if it is your story
  • include the place where the story happened
With this being Thanksgiving week, why not start with a Thanksgiving memory? Here are a few triggers to inspire you and perhaps jog your memory. Too busy to do it today or tomorrow? Next week is fine. 
  • What was the weather like at Thanksgiving?
  • Where did you live? Urban or rural? House or apartment?
  • Who did your family celebrate with?
  • What special dishes did your family have?
  • Who did the cooking?
  • What things did the family do before and after dinner?
  • What funny things happened?
  • What unhappy things occurred?
  • All about cousins
  • All about aunts and uncles
  • All about grandparents
  • Were there any cooking disasters on Thanksgiving? 
  • What did you do in school the days prior to the holiday?
I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping your family history alive. Some of those family happenings can also be made into publishable stories. Chicken Soup for the Soul books and other anthologies are filled with them. Whether you want to publish them or only keep them for your family, start writing! 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Remembering A Special Friend


Today, I'd like to commemorate a very dear friend who passed away very unexpectedly last Friday. We lived on different continents, me in the USA and Mavis in South Africa, but the distance between hearts is nothing but a hop, skip and a jump. We were in close touch made possible by the technology we have today. A few years ago, I wrote a story about our friendship that was published in a Chicken Soup book. I'd like to post it today with both sadness and joy--sad because I have lost a very special friend and joy that I'd had the privilege of knowing her for 29 years.

During this Thanksgiving season, be grateful for your friends for they are a true blessing.

New Friends, Faraway Friends, Forever Friends
By Nancy Julien Kopp

The tour guide stood at the front of our bus, mic in hand. “You can visit the fantastic aquarium,” she said, “or you can shop along Baltimore’s harbor.”

My choice was lunch and shopping, but I wasn’t quite sure what my new friend would choose.  Mavis looked at me and announced in her musical voice, “A fish is just a fish, but shopping….!” I nodded my head in agreement, and we both laughed. Dozens of women on this convention spouse tour left the bus and headed in various directions.

My new friend lived thousands of miles away in South Africa.  Her British family had emigrated there long before she was born.

We had a wonderful afternoon eating Crab Bisque on a restaurant’s outdoor deck, the special scent of the sea and boats bobbing in the harbor making it a memorable meal. We had a perfect view of one the tall ships, sails furled. Both of us ate with relish and talked about our children who were close in age, then browsed the quaint little shops. Mavis bought a small teddy bear for a grandchild soon to be born but was at a loss when it came time to pay. She held out a handful of American coins. “Nancy, find the ones I need to pay.”  We middle-aged women giggled like schoolgirls as I picked out the correct amount.

As the tour bus sped back to our nation’s capital, I reflected on the past days. My husband, Ken, and I had gone to the huge cocktail party on the opening night of this week-long bank convention. There had to be 300 or more people in the large ballroom. We didn’t know a soul, so walked slowly across the room holding our drinks. Another couple was doing the same from the opposite side. He was tall and slim, and she was short, blonde and a bit on the round side. We met in the center, smiled at one another and introduced ourselves.

We could not have been more opposite. My husband headed a small Trust Department in a bank in a mid-sized college community in Kansas. Mike headed the Trust Department of a very large British bank in Johannesburg, South Africa. Despite the thousands of miles between our homes and different cultures, we hit it off immediately. Ken and I had been invited to a party later that evening given by an investment company. Ken asked our new acquaintances to accompany us. “Is it alright to crash a party in America? Mike asked. Ken assured him it was OK if they were with us. I rolled my eyes at my husband but seconded the invitation.

The pattern was set for the remainder of the week. Mike and Ken attended meetings all day while Mavis and I headed for the spouse tours. The four of us had dinner together each evening at various restaurants near our hotel. We traded information about our towns, our families, and our backgrounds. We ate and laughed and soaked in the atmosphere of Washington, DC. The bond between us became stronger with each day. It pleased me that the men got along as well as Mavis and I did. Not always the case with two couples.

Finally, the last day arrived. As we’d done each morning, Mavis and I met in the hotel coffee shop for breakfast. Ken and Mike had eaten earlier before their final meeting. For the first time, I was not enjoying myself with my new friend. Only because I knew I would never see this witty, warm woman again.

I felt as if I’d known her for twenty years, not a mere week. I pushed my scrambled eggs round and round on my plate, my appetite suddenly gone.

“We must write one another, Nancy,” Mavis said as she poured each of us a second cup of coffee. We exchanged addresses and lingered as long as  possible.  When we could delay no longer, the two of us walked to the elevator and I pushed the button a bit harder than necessary.

I told Mavis how very much I’d enjoyed the week, but my voice quavered as I did so.

She put her arms around me and we gave one another the warmest of hugs. Sometimes, a hug can convey so much more than words. This dear woman stepped back and in her British accent said, “I know we will see each other again.”

As I looked into her blue eyes, part of me believed her while another piece of me thought “Fat chance of that!”  Emotion welled and the lump in my throat was so big that all I could do was nod, give her another quick hug and flee inside the elevator. The tears flowed as I walked down the hall to our room. How awful, I thought, to have such a wonderful new friend only to lose her at the end of a week.

It turned out that Mavis was right and I was wrong. Letters flew across the ocean, then later we faxed messages, and finally both of us had e-mail and we could chat as often as we liked. Now, we even skype one another.

In the twenty-four years since we met, Mike and Mavis have visited our home three times. On each of those visits, we have taken them to parts of the USA they’d not seen before. We have gone to South Africa to visit them twice, where they squired us from one end of their beautiful country to the other.  We have met in England, Ireland and Germany to travel together, spending three weeks each time in one another’s company. Never a cross word, never did I feel like I couldn’t wait til the time was over.  

We have been warmly welcomed by Mike and Mavis’ children whenever we have visited their homes in South Africa and England. Our children have graciously hosted our dear friends when they have visited here in our country. Over the years, the circle of friendship grew to include our extended families.

We clicked that first night in Washington, DC and our friendship strengthened more and more through the years. We have shared our hopes and concerns for our children. We have heralded the arrival of each other’s grandchildren, one by one. We have laughed together, we have held deep discussions about our individual countries. We’ve chuckled over the senior moments we all seem to have now, and we have savored this unusual friendship. Two couples from different parts of the world who found they had a great deal in common. Once new friends, then faraway friends and finally, forever friends.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Great Quote For Writers

Nice words by Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt in today's poster. Roosevelt must have truly believed his own words as he accomplished a great deal in his political career and as head of a large family. Read this one-page bio to learn more about our 26th president. Candice Millard's excellent book, The River of Doubt, gives readers a look at another side of Teddy as he and a party of men explore the Amazon River. Read about it here. Once again, you'll see the man who spoke the words above and why he believed in himself.

What if every writer who started a new project wrote while muttering words like This is never gonna fly! Who in the world would read this? I'm not a good writer. and more. But, if the writer continues to tap our words on his/her keyboard, he/she must have some faith or they wouldn't continue to write. So, then we have a writer who believes a little bit but not all the way. Doubt becomes a daily companion. Quit beating yourself up day after day. Resolve to think nothing negative about your writing for one full week. Then a month and keep going.

Even if you don't believe in yourself wholeheartedly, you'll give it a try if you have the passion to write. There has to be something to drive you on even when you don't fully believe that you can be a success, that your story will be published someday. With each bit of success, your belief in yourself will increase. It might not soar to the top of the flagpole but will climb inch by inch. 

Like all things in our writing journey, we move a step at a time, never flying from bottom step to the top in the blink of an eye. Ponder on where you were as a writer five, ten or twenty years ago compared to your position in writing today. Hopefully, you are looking at growth. You did something, didn't you? You are a better writer today than way back in the early days. That  should help you believe in yourself.

How many times have we all seen self-confidence articles that use The Little Engine That Could as an example? So often that there has to be some merit to the comparison. If you're not going to give up, then you must believe in yourself. And, if you do believe in yourself, you will be halfway to your goal just like Teddy Roosevelt said. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Good Advice For Writers

The poster for today can be applied to writers who tend to dwell on the rejections they've received or poor reviews on a book. It's aimed at the ones who have been chastised by an editor or ridiculed by non-writer friends who have little understanding of what the writing life is like. It's for the writers who beat themselves up over past writing, wishing it could have been done over.

Perhaps it is also good advice for all writers. What happened yesterday or last week or last year or ten years ago is beyond our reach as far as changing what occurred. How many times have we all thought If only I hadn't said (done)(written) that! 

Whatever happened cannot be forgotten either. We all have little compartments in our memory bank that hold the things we wish we hadn't said or done. Our minds will not allow us to forget what happened. What if you wrote something without checking your facts and you were called on it by a reader? You are never going to forget it. Nor should you. I look at those occurrences as a learning situation. Not an easy lesson, but a lesson, nevertheless.

We also cannot edit what happened anytime before today. Oh, if only there was a delete button in our past writing journey. There are bumps in the road that we'd be happy to edit or erase completely. We can tell ourself that it was never there but that's only fooling the one who knows best--us.

So, what is left? Acceptance. It's the right thing to do but it is definitely not the easiest path to take. I have learned that accepting whatever negative came into my writing life is a way for me to continue on the learning curve and for me to move on to something new without agonizing over the past. You can worry yourself to a frazzle. Accept and take the next step in your writing journey. 

Perhaps we should not only accept but be thankful that the past is over and we move into the future once we embrace acceptance. Not always easy but something to work on, little by little. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I Love To Write Day

How could I possibly pass up I Love To Write Day? John Riddle, a writer, is the man credited for creating this national day to recognize the art of writing. You can read the history here.

This day is not restricted to professional writers. Far from it. Today is meant to encourage all people to write something. Anything! It is hoped that teachers will recognize the day with a writing project in the classroom. Hopefully, it will be something fun that will encourage children to continue to write and enjoy the process. 

Are you thinking What shall I write?

How about writing that personal letter to a family member or friend today? We all have good intentions of writing to someone and then life barges in and interrupts us so we put it off. No more putting it off. Today is the day! It doesn't have to be several pages, although it could. Even a short personal note to someone you care about will suffice.

Write in your personal journal. Don't have one? Today would be a great day to begin one. What do you write in a daily journal? Anything you want to, no matter how trivial or how filled with anger or how passionate. It's all for you, no one else, so pour out your heart.

Today would be a good day to write a family story. If you have a Family Stories Book started, add this new one to it. If you don't have a book of your family stories, today is the day to begin. Write one story, then add another some other time. Keep writing about the happenings in your family as far back as you can remember. Keep the stories in a 3 ring binder. You'll be surprised how fast it fills up if you write those stories on a regular basis. What a treasure it will be for your children and grandchildren. Don't wait. Begin today!

If nothing else, write a grocery list. It's not terribly creative but it IS writing. 

Ponder on the art of writing. Consider what life would be like if we did not have authors and newspaper journalists, poets and publishers, libraries and book shops. We cannot read if someone does not write.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A First Draft Is Only The Beginning

Yesterday, I told you that I'd subbed a first draft to be critiqued by a few members of my online writing group because I was having so much trouble with it. The idea in my mind was not what appeared in print. So far, two people have looked at my rough piece and, as hoped, they could see what I could not. They both gave me some good advice and something to work toward.

I found three posters with quotes about writing the first draft. The one above gives us a quote from author, Terry Prachett. It is so simple but worthy. Isn't that what we do with that first draft--tell ourselves the story giving it the bones with hopes of fleshing the story in later drafts? It's important to get those thoughts in our head into actual words so that we have a base on which to build the story.

The second poster is also simple but worth our attention. This earliest writing of a story or essay or poem or article is not expected to be perfect. How nice if that would happen but it's not the way this game works. They are meant to transfer the idea from within us to something concrete that we can continue to work on. Don't beat yourself over the head if you read that first effort and think it's a piece of garbage. It very well could be at that point but you have plenty of opportunity to mold it into a finished product you can be proud of.

This last poster gives us a great mental image while letting us know that the first draft is not a finished product. The road to the end result may be short and sweet or long and agonizing. When we wrote on typewriters, it made a writer feel good to grab that piece of paper filled with drivel and rip it out of the machine, then tear it into bits. Now, we either hit the delete button (I hope you don't do that!) or put in a file to be looked at later. Please don't delete what you've written. While it isn't perfect, there may be golden nuggets tucked in here and there. You'll find them when you read the work after it's been in your files for a few days or weeks. 

A first draft is only the beginning and that is of prime importance. Remind yourself of that each time you set out to write something new.