CANNING AND FREEZING

Amy and I moved into our house in December 1978. This year, for the first time, I put out tomato plants. The funny thing is I’m not that much in love with them, but in the summer the produce does taste good. I’ve babied the plants and staked them and then tied them up. To date, about 6-7 green orbs are hanging on the vine, and I’m in hopes they turn red and are ready to eat before rabbits or insects devour them.
All this leads to my missing the foods that Mother used to “fix” when I was a boy. She had a green thumb with all sorts of plants, and maybe she was more successful with them because she stuck them in the dirt, tamped them in with her tennis shoe, and left the alone. Whatever the reason, she used the bounty from Mother Nature to make some of the best tasting things I’ve ever had.
Every summer, she loaded us boys up, and we traveled to one of several blackberry fields. For some
time we picked berries and suffered sticks and scratches from briars. The juice stained our fingers, and unfortunately, chiggers burrowed under our skin. At home, Mother washed the berries and then took most of them and began the process of boiling the juice out to make jelly. She kept a few back to make cobbler. It arrived to the table hot from the oven and disappeared quickly.
In the back yard we had several grape vines. Mother would send us out early in the morning to pick grapes. We dodged wasps that dive-bombed us and grudgingly carried out the chore. Of course, after delivering the grapes, we were more than willing to eat the grape jelly that she made.
We also had a cherry tree, peach tree, pear tree, and apple trees. Mother took the fruits from all those trees and made pies and jelly. She made the dough and layered fruit with butter, brown sugar, and spices before topping the pies with more dough. Then she placed 4-6 pies into an oversized oven, and the aroma filled the house.
Mother’s garden was filled with vegetables for canning or freezing. She picked beans until her back and hands ached. We’d sit outside or in front of the television and break beans by the bushels. Then she would wash them and sterilized dozens of Mason jars before stuffing them with “half-runners” or “bush beans.” If the garden didn’t produce enough, she’d make a trip to the market on Dale Avenue
for a couple of bushels. Ears of corn were picked and shucked. Kernels were cut from the cobs and packaged into bags before being placed into a freezer that looked too much like a giant coffin.
Other things were prepared as well. Green peppers were cut and frozen; hot peppers were sewn on strings and hung for future use. Potatoes were grubbed, scrubbed, and stored on the ledges in the basement. Squash was also gathered and frozen.
Cucumbers were plentiful. Mother cut many for supper, but I never ate them. My father-in-law said that they were the only thing that a hog wouldn’t eat, and I agreed with the assessment. However, many of them were gathered and put into jars. Then what I call “pickle water” was boiled and poured over them, and the jars were sealed. Dozens lined a shelf in the basement until they were properly aged. I had no problems eating those.
Heads of cabbage were chopped, and Mother prepared the stuff in some way before filling a five-gallon crock. The entire thing was set outside under our bedroom window and allowed to “perk.” Jim and I sneaked to the crock and lifted the lid, an unfortunate action that allowed the foul odor escape from what would at some point be kraut.
All of the food that Mother prepared was eaten during the winter months. By the time the next spring arrived, the freezer was nearly bare, and empty jars cluttered the basement. One of the certain things in life was replenishing of those foods would occur each year.

Mother passed in 1996, and for nearly 20 years, I’ve longed for a jar of blackberry jelly and a Dutch apple pie, and a cherry cobbler. When the time comes when I leave this world, I hope to meet up with her and ask her to fix some of those wonderful foods once again. 

AN ANGEL AMONG US

Our lives are sometimes difficult. All of us experience problems, but a few have much harder times than others. That’s when angels appear. Yes, I firmly believe that God brings folks into our lives who serve as angels and who make our lives better. One of them is a well-known figure in Knoxville, and although she’s put off her original plans until the end of the year, Ginny Weatherstone is retiring as CEO of Volunteer Ministry Center.
I met Ginny years ago. Her daughter Anna was a student in my English class.
When she fell ill with “mono,” I taught her through the homebound program. Now, I already loved Anna and enjoyed teasing her and exchanging verbal jabs. In no time, I came to feel the same way about her mom.
My first encounter with Ginny came when she returned home from work. It was late, as usual, and her husband was in the kitchen; I suppose he was starting the family’s dinner. Ginny breezed in and immediately pitched in to help. The couple talked about her work, and from the sounds of the conversation, it was apparent she was involved in a thousand things that were going on all at once. 
When I finished my work with Anna, Ginny presented me a poster with a quote from James Agee’s A Death in the Family that described Knoxville. In some way, that poster and its words prodded me and encouraged me to start writing, and the poster still hangs above my work desk.
A few years later, she spoke to the congregation at First Christian Church, where my family attended. She brought a different message to us about our interactions with the homeless. Ginny encouraged us not to give money to them. Instead, she asked us to send individuals to VMC, where they could receive sustained help in many areas. The best way we could help the needy was to support VMC and the programs it provided.
Ginny Weatherstone has a bulldoggish tenacity. She does not take “no” for an answer. Nothing is impossible to her, and her positive outlook is infectious. The new VMC building offers food, counseling, and housing information to its clients. Ginny has encouraged community involvement, and churches and other groups serve meals and spend time with residents at the complex. Those who have done so have developed relationships with the men that will continue for years.
She preached the gospel of sustained affordable housing for years, and she made it a reality with the completion of Minvilla Manor. In place of the eyesore Fifth Avenue Hotel that sat vacant for years are apartments for 57 individuals. Other places in the city also offer homes for those in need.
Ginny made sure that clients had meals, but she and the VMC staff also managed to provide dental care through the volunteer efforts of local dentists.  Her commitment has been aimed toward making sure those in her care are afforded the same services that more fortunate receive. She serves as their angel, and in so many ways, she also watches over them as a mother; she protects, defends, goads, and scolds. In the end, Ginny is respected and loved by these people who have received a hand up, not a handout.
 The success of VMC is the result of efforts from many people. One is Bruce Spangler, Chief Operating Officer and resident wit. Mary Beth Ramey and the dedicated board of directors also work endlessly to make VMC a success. However, it is Ginny Weatherstone who sits in the driver’s seat and steers the course for the program.
The VMC is established and will continue to serve those in need of housing and guidance. With a little luck and donations from local, state, and federal governments, homelessness can become a thing of the past. Still, I’m going to miss Ginny Weatherstone, seeing her at events and hearing her speak to groups and committees to promote the organization that she has loved like a child. The fact is, however, no one will miss her more than the folks that she works beside and the people she has helped find a second chance.
Ask hundreds of people in the area about the influence that Ginny Weatherstone has had on their lives. It’s a good bet that most of them will at some point refer to her as an “angel.”

Here’s hoping that you enjoy your retirement, Ginny. The clients at VMC and the many friends you’ve made will forever remember your contributions to others. “Well done good and faithful servant.”

ROBIN WILLIAMS...THE LOSS HURTS

How many lives will you touch during your time on earth? Yes, that’s a question without an answer. We all hope that our contact with others will leave positive things, but most of us aren’t really sure of the impact we have. Robin Williams is one of the exceptions. I’ve waited for a while until all the news and television folks poured out their stories and condolences. Now I’ll talk about an individual that was a part of my life for years.
When “Mork and Mindy” came on television, Robin Williams immediately hooked me. Never before had I experienced the rapid-fire comedy that he presented. Most viewers were awed by the way he could take any situation and then ad-lib hilarity into the entire scene. Such an ability was even more impressive when it was pointed out that Williams was at one time a Julliard Shakespearian actor.
Over the years I kept up with Robin Williams. I viewed his early movies, and my good friend Glenn Marquart and I watched “Good Morning Vietnam” over and over. “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Goodwill Hunting” won over millions of fans. “What Dreams May Come” is another one of my favorite movies. It delves into the world of depression and death and resurrection. Many won’t like the road the movie travels, but it might very well be a glimpse into the agony that Robin Williams might have encountered.
One of the things of which I am proudest during my teaching career is having introduced students to “The Dead Poets’ Society.” Robin Williams played an English instructor in an all boys’ private school. He reached those boys with a message that they needed to seek their own interests and life’s callings. He quoted my favorite authors, from Emerson to Thoreau to Whitman, and his performance captivated audiences. I have often wished aloud that in some way I could have had the same kind of impact on my real-life students that this actor did on the movie set.
Williams’ stand-up act was a smorgasbord of topics from politics to child rearing to sex. It was raw, not things for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Still, I watched his recorded concerts, and after the tenth time, I’d mastered the lines from most of his routines. What was lacking was the energy that he infused into every concert and the perfect timing he employed in telling a joke. I shared those recordings with my brothers and others, and everyone laughed until he or she hurt.
In 2001, Robin Williams scheduled a concert date in Nashville. I wanted desperately to see him, but the cost of a ticket was much too high for a teacher with a daughter in college and a son in high school. I’d talked with my brother Dal, who lived in Nashville, about the concert, and a couple of days later, he called me to tell me that he’d bought two tickets and that we were going. I almost cried with excitement.
I traveled to Nashville on Saturday before the Sunday concert to spend time with Dal and his wife Brenda. In the evening, he began to feel ill and complained about begin dizzy. He went to bed that night and slept through most of Sunday. Dal got up with full intentions of going to the concert, but he never felt better. I drove to the Grand Ole Opry House and watched Williams alone. For two-plus hours he performed and kept the audience in agonizing laughter. At the same time, he went through a couple of cases of water as he drank and poured and doused the stage and audience. The only downer was the empty seat where Dal should have been sitting and laughing with me.That was an enormous night in my life. It marked the day I first watched an idol perform live. It also marked the first day of a short, brutal, and deadly battle with cancer that my big brother went through.
Now Robin Williams is gone. He spent a career making others laugh and feel happy, all the while battling depression and other problems that eventually consumed him so much that death was preferable to living. I’m going to miss him for a long time. It’s just another blow in this year, which has been less than special. I hope that Robin Williams finds some peace from the torment that broke him. He will be missed by many of us. I also hope he will tell a couple of jokes to Dal.

Many will understand it when I wish him eternal rest, peace, and happiness, “O Captain, my Captain.”

A WELCOME END TO ELECTIONS

By the time this column is printed, the primaries will be finished. I say, “Thank you, Lord!” Like most people,
I’m tired of the endless television commercials, recorded phone calls, and colorful junk mail that have bombarded my home for several months.
I no longer want to receive recorded phone calls from candidates who are begging for my vote. I especially don’t want to hear from Laura Ingram again. I despise the woman and have no intention of listening to anything she has to say because it’s laced with hateful venom and half-truths. Supposedly, my phones are on a no-call list; however, blocking must not include inane political calls from politicians.
I’ve grown weary of watching ads about candidates for whom I can’t vote. That’s Zach Wamp vs Chuck Fleischmann. Those commercials are on local television due to the gerrymandering of districts borders by individuals and groups who are determined to make sure their candidates are chosen over the other party’s. How else can you explain the commercials for politicians whose home bases are Ooltewah and Chattanooga?
What drives me to the edge of irrational anger are the constant PAC-sponsored commercials that air both
day and night. I woke up this morning before 7 a.m., turned on the television, and saw one of them within ten minutes. One PAC is named Character Counts. Most folks might associate it with the program that is used by public elementary schools, but that’s a wrong assumption. To the contrary, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that “The Character Counts Political Action Committee is funded solely by one of Wamp's bosses at the Lamp Post Group where Wamp works.” The Lamp Post Group is an investment company run by three millionaires who graduated from Samford University in Alabama and gave birth to Access America. Their commercials call out the opponent and praise the skills of Zach Wamp and his ability to help the country get back on the right track.
Chuck Fleischmann has his own supporter. It is called Americans for Prosperity. This PAC has a mere 29,000 members from Tennessee, yet their commercials would have us think they speak for the entire state. Its stated goal is to educate citizens about economic policy. I suspect the PAC is more bent on preaching a specific economic principle and then turning its advocates loose on communities.
A whopping $425,000 dollars donated toward defeating three Tennessee Supreme Court justices has come from State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s own PAC. The commercials accuse the justices of all sorts of terrible things, which records show simply aren’t true.
Many in the federal government lament President Obama’s blurring the separation of powers of the three branches. It would appear that Ramsey is doing the same thing on the state level. Isn’t his job to lead the senate in drawing up legislation and enacting it?
What I’ve noticed most about the 2014 campaign is that it’s strong on personal attacks and half-truths and short on ideas. Most of the time, commercials slam opponents. I, for one, am “sick and tired” of candidates claiming they are “true conservatives” who have fought Obama and his liberal agenda. The truth is that most of them have had no real involvement with any such things.
Instead of telling what they WILL DO, they tell what they WON”T DO. Our country has witnessed a congress that has done less than any other. We need folks in office who present ideas, work to compromise, and enact legislation that helps ALL people.
I’m numb from the avalanche of ads and attacks and demonizing that has gone on. It’s too bad we can’t oust them all and start over again. Perhaps the best representatives are unable to run because they must make a living to support their families. Maybe they don’t have a PAC that will pour money into attack ads and empty campaign promises. I just want all of this to be over for a while. How about you?