Take Me Back to the Hills of Camp Toccoa

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I have hiked the Appalachian Trail in three states.

I have gone tubing down the James River in Virginia.

I have body surfed in the Atlantic Ocean.

I have explored and hiked trails in Arizona, marveling at the art left in the rocks by those who lived there before my time.

I have climbed a mountain and gazed down at the city of Kyoto, Japan.

I have gone 4-wheeling in the Pyrenees of northern Spain and southern France.

I have climbed Stone Mountain more times than I can remember.

I have sat on a rock overlooking the Shenandoah Valley and watched a hawk soar through the blue autumn sky.

All of these things, and many more, I have done in the 69 years of my life. I have experienced a lifetime of extraordinary days.

But none of these adventures hold a candle to the ones I had every summer growing up, and spending weeks on end at Camp Toccoa in the North Georgia mountains.

From the age of 8 until my 16th summer, the end of school in June meant that summer camp was near. My days were spent in anticipation of going to camp, riding the train from Atlanta to Toccoa, and then spending anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 weeks (depending on my ability to beg my parents to let me stay, and their ability to pay for it) at Camp Toccoa.

I was a very shy little girl – an introvert before I knew the word or what it means – and never was quite comfortable anywhere except in my cabin at camp with 7 other girls. I always felt overwhelmed in a school classroom filled with kids, on the playground at recess, waiting to be picked for a team, and even in Sunday School, where I was never sure where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to believe. In my everyday life I was somewhat of a chameleon – I could adapt to my surroundings and my environment, but I was never comfortable or at ease. I never felt like I was part of any school group I attempted to join – I was always on the fringes, or so it seemed to me. I was happiest when I was outdoors swinging on a rope swing, lying in the grass gazing at the clouds drifting across the blue sky, or walking on the beach or along a path, either by myself or with a trusted friend.

But I loved Camp Toccoa. And I loved being a Camp Fire Girl. Camp was a place where I felt like I belonged, and being a part of the group that was Camp Fire gave me a safe place to be me and to explore the depths of my imagination and my soul. The counselors and leaders were my mentors, and I looked to them as the role models for my emerging self. Camp was the place where I knew where I was, where I was supposed to be, and who I was supposed to be with. The pressure was off, and I was free to be myself.

This past weekend, the memories flooded back as I attended Camp Toccoa’s 90th anniversary alumni reunion. The camp has changed quite a bit since I was a camper in the 1950s and 1960s, but even with the changes and the growth, there are some things that never change. I slept in the cabin I spent four weeks in when I was 9 years old. I found my signature – along with the silly little writings of a 12-year-old – written in pencil in the rafters of another cabin. I found quartz crystals where I had searched for them as a teenager. I climbed a huge rock ledge to a lookout point where I had spent sleep-out nights as a girl pondering the universe and gazing out at the valley below. I hiked trails that were familiar to me, and a few that I had never been on before, discovering that Camp Toccoa always has something new to offer me.

Seeing old friends and familiar faces was a treat for this introvert, giving me the courage to step out and engage with new friends. Still, at age 69, it can be a challenge! I was a sponge, absorbing everything, every word, every face, every story.

I sat in a rocking chair on the lodge porch, my mind flooded with memories long buried, now bubbling to the surface. I observed the happy reunions as former campers and counselors arrived, recognizing familiar faces, and greeting each other with hugs and lots of love. I watched the night campfire crackle and pop, while children eagerly fed it wood and anticipated making s’mores. I listened to stories of summer camp, and contributed a few of my own as the bonds of Camp Fire intertwined around us all, pulling us all together as a universal family.

I was at camp, my safe place. I was home.

 

 

 

“Beneath the pine trees, I hear the night breeze. It seems to whisper of Camp Toccoa…..Take me back to the hills of Camp Toccoa.”

 

 

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Playing in the Key of C

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When I was taking piano lessons as a child, one of my exercises was playing scales. Of course, C was the easiest to play – all white keys. It got a little more complicated as the scales of F and G were added, one with a flat and the other with a sharp. Then, they got harder and harder as more sharps and flats were added, and constant practice was needed to teach my fingers where they should go.

Among the simple little pieces my piano teacher gave me were hymns. Of course, I began with the ones in the key of C, and mastered them pretty quickly. “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” was one of the easier ones. Another was “Jesus is Tenderly Calling.” I moved on to hymns with one flat or one sharp. Since I learned to read music the traditional way, I read both the treble and bass clef, and didn’t know about chords or chord progressions until years later when I took organ lessons. My brain was forced to look at both clefs and relay the message to each of my hands about which notes to play.

I remember my teacher showing me each new hymn and making me study the music before I ever put my fingers on the keyboard. She would tell me to think in that particular key. For instance, if the hymn was in the key of G, she had me look for all of the F sharps in the song and picture in my mind my fingers going to the black key. I learned to concentrate on the key of the music before I ever attempted to play it. I would then play a few scales in the key of G to warm up.

The difference between flats and sharps never bothered me. I have friends who are amateur or hobby musicians like I am who tell me that they can’t play flats, or they can’t play sharps. They hand pick the hymns as those that fit their particular criteria. Because of the way my piano teacher taught me, I was never daunted by the difference.

I did freak out, however, when the hymn had more than two flats or sharps. But by using the approach I was taught, I was able to play, if not master, most of the hymns I wanted to learn.

Isn’t life a lot like playing in the key of C when things are going smoothly in our lives? We find that we travel effortlessly along the white keys of life. We don’t even have to consider, worry about, or work to avoid the black keys. But as life becomes more complicated, and challenges pop up in our musical score adding sharps and flats along our way, our fingers have to work a little harder and train themselves to maneuver in order to make sweet music. We discover that sometimes we need to stop and study what is going on in our lives, and anticipate the change in the pathway. Through prayer, contemplation, and meditation, we are able to set our hearts and souls for the change in path.

These days, my music page of life has turned from a song in the key of C to one in another key. Things aren’t quite as predictable as they have been for the past couple of years. I am facing new challenges, unknown melodies, and probably some sharps and flats in my life. I need to set my mind to think in a new key, and prepare myself for some time on the black keys.

It may not be easy, but I’m hopeful the result will be some beautiful music.

Small Town, Georgia, Girl

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           I have a new baseball cap that labels me as exactly who I am. It says “Small Town Girl”. It has a map of Georgia embroidered on it with a star designating my approximate location in the state. It was a gift, and I love it!

I guess I’ve always been a small town girl, even though I was born in Piedmont Hospital in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, in 1948. But even though I was born in a large hospital in Georgia’s capital city, I never claimed Atlanta as my own.

I grew up in Decatur, Georgia, which during the 50s and 60s was indeed a small town. We were six miles from downtown Atlanta, which to the child that I was seemed like an awfully long way from home. It was too far to walk, so we had to take the trolley if we wanted to go downtown to go shopping at Rich’s. My mother didn’t drive a car, meaning that most of our shopping was done right there in Decatur. It was when Mama needed patterns and fabric to make clothes for my sister and me that we dressed up like we were going to Sunday School, hopped on the trolley near the Decatur train station three blocks from our house, and spent the entire day downtown, getting off the trolley back home in Decatur late in the afternoon, just in time for Mama to prepare our family supper. Sometime in my adolescent years, Decatur lost her small town status to become part of Metropolitan Atlanta. But she remained a small town for me until long after I moved away at the age of sixteen. Today, even though Decatur retains much of her small town charm, the traffic congestion and difficulty in finding a place to park that doesn’t cost me an arm and a leg, along with the variety of pricey restaurants, remind me that she really doesn’t qualify for “small town” status in my mind anymore. Even the houses on the street where I grew up are now priced so far out of my reach when they go on the market to be sold, I could never afford to live there these days!

Enter Monroe, Georgia, the small town I have called home for the past five years. Now, this little town reminds me more of the Decatur where I grew up than any place I know. Yes, we have our traffic snarls on Broad Street, especially when the big trucks are trying to get through town on their way from one of the interstates to the other, and when I am trying to come out of the Walmart parking lot during rush hour or on Saturday. It’s a lovely little town, with friendly people, welcoming churches, a terrific little community theater, a Saturday farmer’s market, lots of small shops for browsing and purchasing interesting items of all kinds, safe places to walk my little dog Sunshine, a strong medical community, and the warm touch of Georgia hospitality. People here wave as they drive by, and they pause on the sidewalk to say hello to my dog. They don’t ignore me as I walk past and will look at me and greet me with a smile.

If you had told me ten years ago that I would be living in Monroe, Georgia, I probably would have shaken my head, pondered in my mind just where Monroe is on the Georgia map, furrowed my brow, and asked, “Where? Why?” It isn’t important why or how I landed in Monroe, but I am happy that I did. I was even able to purchase a small home – one that I could afford – to set down a root or two. I am making this my home for awhile and claim this little town as my own, even though I am a transplant.

Small Town, Georgia, is a good place for someone like me. I live a simple life, enjoy listening to the birds singing in the trees around my home and watching the deer in the park, appreciate that nothing that I need is further than 10 minutes away by car (and I could walk if I had to!), and have made some very good friends. All this, and more, are what make me a true blue “Small Town Girl.”

In the novel that I wrote, “Fishbowls and Birdcages,” the main character was someone like me, a person who moved around from town to town, never quite belonging, and never sure just where Home was. She finally found her place, and it, too, was in Small Town, Georgia, although hers was a fictional town. She learned that the saying, “bloom where you are planted,” had a positive meaning for her as she developed her own identity and strength through her faith in God. Fran found her place, and I have found mine.

Yes, I am now officially a Small Town Georgia Girl. My new hat is proof of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Help Me Make It Through the Night

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The telephone awakened me from a sound sleep. My bedside clock showed that it was a few minutes past 1:00am. Caller ID on my phone informed me that the caller was my friend, Bill. What could he want to talk about at this hour of the night. We had talked earlier in the evening for almost an hour.

Bill apologized for waking me up. The sound of his voice told me that something was wrong. I couldn’t get him to share with me what was on his mind, or why he called me at this ungodly hour, even though I asked him more than once what was the matter. Rather than quiz him further or demand an explanation, which it was obvious I wasn’t going to get, I simply asked him, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Talk to me, “ he replied. “Please help me make it through the night.”

Only a couple of days earlier we had been talking on the phone about our favorite song writers, and Kris Kristofferson came up in the conversation, where we had agreed that we both liked his music, and this song in particular.

“Talk to me,” he repeated.

“Would you like for me to tell you a story?” I asked.

“Yes, please.”

Drawing from my writing and my collection of days, I began telling him about a game my sister and I played as children, Runaway Orphans. Since Bill and I both grew up in the same town, he was familiar with the places my sister and I visited when we played this special game. I embellished the story and added drama to it in an attempt to entertain Bill with its telling and perhaps help him get whatever was troubling him off of his mind.

When I finished, he said to me, “Tell me another one.”

I then went into the story about the day I ran away from home when I was five years old.

“Another one?”

I dug deeper into my childhood, recalling our family tradition of making homemade peach ice cream on the Fourth of July every year and about my job of sitting on top of the churn while Daddy turned the crank. From there, I went into the story about my special brother, Johnny, and a story about my daddy’s pocket watch. As I finished this story, I realized I had been talking for well over two hours, and that it was very quiet on the other end of the line.

“Are you still there? Are you feeling any better now?” I asked.

Bill’s voice, barely above a whisper, answered, “Yes, I think I am.”

“Do you want me to tell you any more stories?”

“No, I think I’ll be ok now. Thank you.” And he hung up, leaving me wondering what had just happened. It was now 4:30am.

Bill never told me why he needed me that night. The next evening when we talked, I commented, “Well, we made it through the night last night, didn’t we?”

“Yes, “ he said. “And it was no small feat. I’ll forever be grateful to you for staying on the phone with me all night long.”

I never learned what was troubling Bill that night. Over the course of our three-year friendship, I discovered that he had his own demons he was battling, and little by little, one by one, he shared a few of them with me. He also recalled tidbits of his history and life as a journalist – he truly had the gift of the story teller, and could have me laughing uncontrollably or sympathizing with tears running down my face as he’d relate a tale from his past.

Bill also encouraged me as a writer. He never completely understood my style of writing – I am not a journalist or reporter, but a weaver of tales and a painter using words instead of paint of my memories and adventures through life. He would sometimes tell me that I needed to step away and be more objective in my writing, that I put too much of myself into it. I’d politely disagree with him, and he’d keep on complimenting me on my writing, even though I didn’t take this piece of advice. He said on many occasions that I was a better writer than he was. That wasn’t true. He was a gifted writer, a diligent researcher, and an extraordinary communicator through the written word. I could never do what he did.

One thing that Bill told me often was that he didn’t believe he would live to be an old man. He once said that he didn’t think he would live to see 70. And he was right. I guess he somehow knew his limits and sensed his life span. When a classmate of ours died recently, he told me he thought he might be next. I wish he had been wrong.

Bill was my friend. My heart is aching as I write tonight. I’ll miss hearing his voice, listening to him telling me about his latest writing assignment, and being the recipient of his praise and admiration of me and my writing.

I wish I could have had the chance to say goodbye.

“I don’t care what’s right or wrong,

I don’t try to understand.

Let the devil take tomorrow.

Lord, tonight I need a friend.

Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow’s out of sight.

And it’s sad to be alone.

Help me make it through the night.”

“Help Me Make It Through the Night” by Kris Kristofferson

Gimme That Stick!

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My friend, George, told me a story from his childhood that keeps rolling around in my head, and I can’t let it go. With his permission, I am retelling it on my blog. What a day in his own Collection of Days!

George’s childhood was spent living in a mill village near Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1940’s. Both of his parents worked in the textile mill – his dad was a superintendent, and his mom operated a spinning machine of some kind. They had a family of three boys and two girls, of which George was somewhere in the middle, and lived in one of the mill-provided homes. George has many stories from his childhood growing up in the mill village, but this one is the best.

When George was about ten or eleven years old, he had a German Shepherd dog named Jake. He and Jake were best buddies, and roamed the village and nearby fields together. When George was at school, Jake would go out to the front of the house and lie down in a small ditch beside the dirt road where they lived. One morning, when George was heading off to school, he saw one of the mill workers come barreling down the dirt road in his truck, running late on his way to work. From George’s perspective, it appeared that the man saw Jake lying on the side of the road, swerved his truck as he rounded the curve at George’s house, not in an effort to avoid the dog, but purposely to try to hit him. Luckily for Jake, he dodged out of the way, avoiding being hit by this man and his truck. Unluckily for the man, George recognized him and vowed to get even.

George promised Jake he would take care of things. Nobody was going to try to hurt his dog! That afternoon after school, he found a big stick and walked down the road to the mill. He waited at the bottom of the steps to the main entrance, watching for the man to come out at the end of his shift. The mill whistle blew, and workers started pouring out of the doors and down the steps on their way home. George spotted the man, approached him with stick in hand and shouted,

“You’re the man who tried to run over my dog!” With that, he began swinging and thrashing the stick at the man.

About that time, George’s mother came down the steps on her way home and saw George swinging the big stick at the man.

“Boy, what are you doing?” she yelled at him.

With angry tears in his eyes, George answered, “He tried to run over my dog.”

“Boy, gimme that stick,” she demanded, grabbing the stick from George’s hands and proceeding to take over where he left off.

Moral of this story: Don’t ever mess with a boy and his dog, and by all means, don’t mess with the boy’s mother!

Kissed by an Angel

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I learned today that Drew Brees and I have something in common. That’s funny, since he’s a famous quarterback, and I’m not. What could two people, so very different from each other, possibly have that is alike?

A birthmark on our faces. He doesn’t intend to have his removed, which he announced publicly in an interview that I read tonight online, and the thought never even crossed my mind about having mine removed.

My birthmark is a grayish pigmentation on my left cheek, which looks more like a smudge than anything else. And I couldn’t tell you the times someone has taken a finger or thumb and tried to wipe it off for me. It’s not budging, and I wouldn’t want it to.

When I was a little girl, I remember my first grade teacher sending me to the girl’s bathroom to wash my face after coming in from recess one afternoon. I did what she asked, but the birthmark didn’t wash off. I also remember crying about it when I got home from school that day, and my mother walking the three blocks from our house to the school the next morning with me to have a talk with my teacher. I’m sure my mother was very polite in speaking with her – my mom never had a harsh word to say to anyone – but after that nothing was ever said again about the birthmark on my face.

One thing my mother did that I am very thankful for was making me feel that my birthmark was something very special and something to be proud of. She told me that God put it there on my face for a special reason, and that it made me different from everyone else in the world. She said that it was a kiss from an angel on the day I was born. It was a lot more prominent when I was a child than it is now, but I don’t remember ever being made fun of or otherwise being made to feel like there was something wrong with me after the day my mother set things straight with my teacher. It was part of who I was, and I was very proud of the little gray oval adorning my cheek.

From time to time over the years, people have said something to me about having a dirty mark on my face, or politely suggested that I needed to wipe my cheek with a napkin or tissue. I always thought it was funny, and I’d tell them that it wouldn’t do any good – the smudge was there to stay. I hardly ever think about it any more, and I seldom even notice it when I look at myself in the mirror. It’s been a long time since anyone told me my face was dirty!

Reading the story about Drew Brees, brought this all back to me tonight, bringing back a childhood memory long buried, and also echoing my mother’s words to me about my birthmark being special. I am very glad that I have it, and that it is a part of who I am. And I like the fact that it is on my face, where I,and everyone else, can see it.

I have proof that I was kissed by an angel, and it’s on my face for the world to see!

A Valentine’s Day Memory

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My decorated shoe box sits along the chalk tray with twenty others.  I went to Woolworth’s last week with my best friend, Susan, to buy red and pink construction paper, paper lace doilies, and heart-shaped stickers.  We spent the entire Saturday afternoon cutting out paper hearts of all shapes and sizes, layering them with the lace doilies, and pasting them onto shoe boxes we had retrieved from our fathers’ closets.  We each covered our shoe box with the construction paper, and carefully cut a slit into the box lid big enough for the fanciest Valentine to fit through, but too small for a hand to reach in to count the cards.  We created two masterpieces, works of art, beautiful beyond comparison.  We couldn’t wait until Monday to place them in the classroom.  None in the entire class could compare with our Valentine boxes.

Susan’s box sits down the shelf from mine. They are arranged in ABC order.  Susan is lucky.  Her box is between Jane Richards’ and Stephen Summer’s.  Jane’s is decorated and frilly, Stephen’s is a boy’s box –  no competition, whatsoever.  But my luck is to be sandwiched between Kathleen Brown’s and Dan Davidson’s.  Dan’s is a lot like Stephen’s – no sweat.  But Kathleen, always Kathleen.  I don’t know how she does it.  The same materials adorn her box as mine, but her box makes mine look like an orphan.  I don’t understand it.  Everything Kathleen does is perfect, from Friday spelling tests to Valentine boxes!  Her box is even bigger than mine.  Her father is very tall, and has a larger foot than my father’s.  What luck.  I bet she’ll have more cards in her box than I do, too.

Each morning the week of Valentine’s Day, we are allowed to bring in our cards and “mail” them to our classmates.  I check my box daily, peeking through the narrow slit to see if I can tell how many cards I have.  I also check Kathleen’s and Susan’s boxes.  I am positive that they have more cards than I do.  I even addressed a few of my extras to myself and slipped them into my box to make it look full.  My beautiful box is looking plainer and plainer everyday, as it sits next to Kathleen’s.  It just doesn’t look as fancy as it did at my house last Saturday.  I am feeling very sorry for myself, and I dread Valentine’s Day instead of looking forward to it.

Valentine’s Day arrives, and with it an excitement in the air.  Someone’s mom brings decorated cupcakes to school, and my mother arrives with cut-out heart sugar cookies.  Our room ceases to be a classroom as a party atmosphere fills the air.  Our teacher stands up in front of the class and gives us her lecture about how it isn’t important how many Valentines we receive, but what kind of friends we are everyday.  I have heard the same speech every year since first grade, but for some reason this year it strikes very close to my heart.  I have been so consumed with my own box and how full it is, I have forgotten the other children in the class.  I look at Dan seated in the desk next to mine.  Did I remember to put a card from me into his box?  I can’t remember.  And Kathleen?  She is so smart and talented, she does everything to perfection.  Her spelling test papers are flawless and her penmanship is perfect.  I wonder if she is as nervous as I am about opening her Valentine box.

The boxes are distributed to us, and we are allowed to open them.  Mine is full of cards, but many of them are from me.  I separate these from the rest only to discover that I still have lots of cards.  Oblivious to anyone around me, I open each card, read it, and look on the back to see who it is from.  I am feeling good as I go through my pile of cards.  I do have friends, and it really doesn’t matter anymore if my box is as fancy as Kathleen’s.  I open a card from Dan, and turn toward him to say thanks.  He has just torn open an envelope, and I recognize my printing on it.  I am so relieved that I did send one to him after all.  I turn my attention back to the job at hand, and find a card that is different from all the others.  The envelope is handmade of construction paper, and it is larger than the others.  Who can it be from?  I pull the sticker off very carefully that seals it, and I gently pull out a card made out of cut-out hearts and pictures from a store-bought card from another year.  It is the most beautiful Valentine I have ever seen in my life!  I am afraid to turn it over to see who it is from.  I look around the room to see if anyone is watching me, but everybody is busy opening their own cards and eating cupcakes and cookies. Furtively, I place one hand in front of the card to shield it from any eyes that might be looking in my direction, and with my other hand I silently flip the card over on its back.

Written in painstakingly neat handwriting on the back of this wonderful card is “I love you.  Be my Valentine.  Stephen.”  I feel the blood rush to my face, my very first blush.  Embarrassed, I slide the card to the bottom of my stack where it can’t be seen by anyone.  I cut my eyes over toward Stephen’s desk.  He is looking at me, but drops his head quickly when he sees my eyes move his way.  His face turns rosy, his first blush.

It was a very special Valentine’s Day.  Fifth grade, if I remember correctly, maybe sixth.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that it is the Valentine’s Day when I discovered new truths and gained new insights about competition, friendship, first love.

Stephen and I probably never said more than a dozen words to each other throughout our elementary school years.  We held hands once at a school carnival, but never worked up the nerve to say anything to each other.  I kept his Valentine for years.  I am not sure what finally happened to it.  I still remember exactly what it looked like, and I can still see his words printed on the back of it.