Monday, December 26, 2011

Holiday Greenery

The whole thing started innocently enough. It always does. I have a friend in a nearby city who makes floral arrangements pretty enough to paint. She encouraged me to try my hand at it and quoted a professional who spoke to her garden club. "Just go out in the yard and cut what you have to fill in your arrangements," he told the women.

That might work for the speaker and even for the members of the garden club, but there's nothing appropriate growing in my yard. This advice did, however, plant a seed in my subconscious, and an idea gradually began to sprout. This past fall as I drove around tending to family business and running errands, I began to notice untrimmed greenery growing in public places.

I spent an entire afternoon one day a week before Christmas driving all over my side of town. Armed with my garden shears and heavy duty gloves, I gathered branches from neglected spots.

Cedars with bright blue berries were growing along the railroad track. Magnolia leaves were the easiest to locate. There are a number of older condominium complexes in the area with branches growing over their brick fences and hanging within easy reach of anyone standing on the public sidewalk. Several different species of holly grow behind local stores along the back of their employees' parking lot. Another source of evergreen branches came from the bushes growing around the dumpster at the public library.

It was great fun. I came home with a car full of branches and berries and Christmas cheer.

My ancestors were known as raiders and horse thieves in the old country. I have no trouble maintaining the family tradition. A creative life style adds adventure to what would otherwise be a mundane suburban existence.

This spring I will visit some of the holly bushes and trees to scatter holly tone around their roots. Next fall their leaves will be a deeper green. Fertilizing the neglected plants is also part of the family tradition. It's called maintaining the source.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Checking My Traps

It was two days before Christmas in a Memphis suburb. My holiday preparations were pretty well under control. I needed a couple of small items from the grocery and decided to quickly check out one or two of my favorite shopping spots. I wanted to see if the prices on the holiday decorations had been marked down. A friend of mine calls this "checking your traps."

My first stop was the hobby store. I planned to make a floral arrangement for Christmas day and needed some supplies. As I entered the store, I saw the aisles of the gift wrap and ribbons were crowded with other bargain hunters. The floral side of the store was almost empty. I walked down the main aisle and spotted a salesman. He seemed to twitch all over and reeked of cigarette smoke. I asked for a "doohickey" I needed for my floral arrangement.

Another woman rounded the corner of the same aisle 30 seconds later. She found the salesman bent double at the waist and biting the edge of one index finger. I was standing beside him, patting him soothingly on the shoulder and murmuring, "Just two more days, it will allllll be over in two more days."

My next stop was the grocery store across the street. Once in a while you can find something unique or nice houseplants on sale just before Christmas. Everyone who wasn't at the hobby store was grocery shopping. Many were from out of town.

You can always spot the out of towners in the grocery store during the holidays. They're the ones wearing proper coats and boots with wool scarves and sturdy gloves poking out of a pocket. Memphians don't dress for cold weather. The typical Southerner will don a light weight jacket, leave it unbuttoned and run from the car to the store. They rely on complaints about the weather for warmth.

There was a traffic jam in the cereal aisle. One little boy about six was seriously considering his selection. An older woman, probably his grandmother, was supervising. He pulled a particularly sugar-packed specimen from the shelf and announced, "My dad buys me this one." The fib was so big it could barely fit between his lips. His grandmother gave him a level look. "Well, some times he does." the child murmured and hung his head.

His grandmother and I exchanged a glance. She sighed. It was Christmas. She knew his parents never bought junky cereals and that most of it would be thrown out after the holiday. "Just get the smallest box they have." she said.

There was a little girl sitting in the shopping cart in front of me as I stood in the check out line. She was close to the same age as the boy in the cereal aisle. Her long blond hair hung in ringlets. She wore an unbuttoned fake leopard skin coat. Her legs were bare and her feet were loosely stuck in plastic shoes with no socks. The temperature outside hovered around the freezing mark.

She was happily playing with a new toy. The torn box was discarded in a corner of the cart. Another shopper admired the it. "Where did you find that?" she asked the mother. "It's just down that aisle in the whining section." she replied and pointed in a general direction.

The two women proceeded to discuss the child in the cart. I didn't try to follow the conversation, but apparently she had been a menopausal baby. The mother was driving kindergarten carpool for a second time and enjoying it less. Confessional style conversation between strangers is common in this part of the country.

At that moment, someone the mother knew walked past. She hailed him and called out, "The egg nog is down that aisle." Then she covered her mouth with one hand and her eyes got big and round. She momentarily left the child in the cart with the other women in line to watch and held a quick almost whispered conversation with her friend. She gave the impression that not everyone in her social circle approves of social drinking.

We all know what one fundamentalist says to another when they meet in the liquor store; absolutely nothing.

I left the shopping area for the short drive home. I didn't find anything on sale that appealed to me, but I was warmed all the way home with the Christmas memories I collected. It was a most profitable outing.

Merry Christmas,
Jackie Lee

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wrapping Paper

My name is Jackie Lee Ellis. I grew up in Bastrop County, Texas, but married a "boy" I met at the University of Texas at Austin. We wound up living the corporate life away from my family roots. The years were divided between Tennessee and New Jersey. The contrast between the three states has been interesting. That's an understated diplomatic description.

Our earliest years were spent in Memphis. There I was blessed to share my first two pregnancies with another young woman I met at the OB/Gyn office. We bonded while seated in the doctor's office comparing symptoms and background stories.

Although we're both eldest daughters, Kathy has the dominant personality. She's also a native Memphian with great managerial skills and useful connections.

One of her brothers is a traveling salesman. Kathy researched and found the best prices for formula in her brother's territory. He regularly brought cases home for both of us. Her father managed a pasta factory. We had pasta in every shape imaginable for consumption and toddler art projects. My husband worked for a pharmaceutical company that manufactured several over the counter products. He kept us all supplied with sweetener and suntan lotion.

Kathy's best connection was through her husband, Al, who was a graphic designer for Cleo Wrap. Cleo made those boxes of valentines the children swap every February and Christmas wrapping paper.

Al was a big beautiful man with chestnut hair and full beard who claimed he was from L.A. That's "lower Arkansas" to the uninitiated. He was the only person I've ever known who could use the word "rotogravure" properly in a sentence. It was his responsibility to be sure the colors were correct and to sign off on the design before it could be printed.

A few feet or inches of the first run would be printed and then torn off the machine and taken to another part of the plant for inspection. The approved first runs were carefully rolled around a cardboard cylinder. Several samples would be placed on the same roll before it was set aside and another begun. These rolls would then be given to anyone in the office willing to take them home.

Al had been well trained by his frugal wife. He always brought rolls home to Kathy who shared them with her extended family and many of her friends. I took the sizable mound of holiday wrap in my attic for granted. The only disadvantage was that you never knew how big the top piece was going to be or what to expect in the next layer. He left Cleo in the early '80's, but it took me years to use up my "mystery" wrap.

Al dropped dead one August evening about 14 years ago. He was diabetic and faithfully following the proper regime, but diabetics don't have predictable symptoms preceding heart attacks. One evening the family enjoyed an uneventful dinner; three hours later Al was an organ donor.

Kathy is a paragon of strength and practical to the core. She said all that talk about adrenalin setting in during an emergency is baloney. It's totally impossible to give mouth to mouth resuscitation and phone 911 at the same time.

This is the time of the year as we prepare for Christmas when the "holes" in our lives make themselves most apparent. The "holes" are created by the loss of those we've loved. The hope provided by the birth of Christ is that they are at peace in a better place. Those of us still living are left with treasured memories and our faith.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Raiders and Horse Thieves

My name is Jackie Lee Ellis. I'm from Bastrop County, Texas, and am currently writing a memoir of the years I spent as a child on a cattle ranch there.

I spent last night re-writing the rough draft. I've come to the realization that there isn't room in the book for all my favorite family stories.

My favorite is the story of my triple great grandmother, Grandma Wamel. Grandma had a penchant for the letter W. Her first husband was William Warfield Watts. The exact details of her life have not been handed down in the family. Apparently, there were those in the generations between hers and mine that felt some of them were scandalous and best forgotten.

Grandma was the victim of a frontier divorce. Her husband just walked away leaving her in Kentucky with a boy to raise on her own. Her sister also disappeared about the same time. Women didn't work outside the home back then. Her options for supporting herself and her son were limited. Grandma decided the best thing to do would be to move to Texas and make a new life for herself and her child.

Even though they took the train, it wasn't an easy trip. Her son managed to get himself kicked in the face by a horse or mule at a stop somewhere in Louisiana. Grandma had to leave him there with the doctor. That boy was my great grandfather, William Perry Watts.

He stayed with the doctor in Louisiana for a year. The broken jaw refused to heal. The doctor finally removed it. The bottom teeth that were connected to the jaw were also history.

William Perry joined his mother in Bastrop County. She married again. This husband's name was Wamel. They had a son. William Perry started working as a teamster moving cattle to San Antonio when he was 11. The term "teamster" came from driving cattle.

Grandma's second son was a toddler when word came that a new family had moved into the county. Their name was Watts. Sure enough. It was Grandma's first husband "married" to her sister.

There were two options for handling this situation. The first would be to face her first husband and her sister and shoot at least one of them. They both needed killin'. The other was to take the high road and ignore them. Grandma chose the latter. She knew them both well and figured they deserved each other.

As always,
Jackie Lee

Friday, December 2, 2011


My name is Jackie Lee Ellis. I was born in Bastrop County, Texas, and have been a Tennessee resident most of my adult life. Orange is one of my least favorite colors. I feel almost unpatriotic making this confession. Orange is the school color for both the University of Texas at Austin where I earned most of my degree and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

A major percentage of the people residing in both these states are of Irish or Scotch Irish descent. Orange is not a becoming color to those of us with fair complexions. It makes us look plain awful or dead.

Even though I don't care for it, orange was a major part of my surroundings for the first 20 years or so of my married life. We had no furniture when we bought our first house. There was an excellent sale at what was then Goldsmith's Department Store on an iron table and chairs. They were orange. This purchase required a touch of orange in the kitchen to blend it with the rest of the house. Some of you may recall the vinyl-backed wallpaper in the bamboo trellis design with flowers climbing it. My flowers were orange.

We had four children in 11 years with that wallpaper. It was during this time that I decided orange may be the color of insanity.

I was finally able to sell the table and chairs at a garage sale. The top was fake wood. The buyer it took it apart to transport it. We turned the top over to load it and found numberless catsup tracks where people had wiped their hands on the underneath side of the table. I wish I could say they were all child size. I'm afraid one of the adults in our household set the trend.

Then there was the time my car died during the cusp between last year's and next year's new car models. I bought the last Ford stationwagon on the lot. The salesman described its color as butterscotch. One man's butterscotch is another woman's orange, but there was an advantage to that model and color. It was the car our two older daughters drove back and forth to high school. It was not a "cool" car. I hope it kept them from "dragging."

The first year they drove it, our eldest was attending one Catholic girls' school while her sister went to the other. Of course the schools were rivals. Our eldest has the attitude of a first born. She would pull up in the drive of the rival school in the orange station wagon and honk her horn for her younger sister. It's a wonder she lived to graduate.

Ten years later we were well established in New Jersey. One of the women among our circle of friends in the local bridge club was a sculptor. I begged her to show me her work and then begged to be allowed to buy a piece. She refused. A couple of years later she came back to me with an offer. She was about to become a grandmother and wanted me to make a quilt for the new baby. It had to have a dog theme. She would trade me a piece of sculpture for a quilt.

She offered to let me choose the piece from her collection when it came time for the swap. I refused. I knew she was emotionally attached to most of her pieces and didn't want to take one of her favorites. I told her to bring me the piece she wanted me to have.

She brought me two pieces. One is a black horse's head. The other is a beautiful young woman. Of course she's nude. She's sitting with her legs beneath her. The detail in the piece is magnificent. Her hair is braided in cornrows. She's perfect. And she's orange.

The sculptor loved the nude and was most proud of the stone. She told me in great detail about where she found it in New York City and how she had to haul it up a flight of stairs out of a basement to get it home.

My sense of humor got the best of me. I love the piece. I thought all sculpture was done in beige or black or maybe pink, but orange? I couldn't help but laugh to myself. I still smile every time I look at it.

The orange goddess sets on a bureau in our guest room. Our grandsons are 7 and 10. Her nudity embarrasses them. They dress her in a t-shirt when they come to sleep over. I'm still not overly fond of the color, but dearly love the memories.

As always,
Jackie Lee