I Was His Favorite…Really

I’m traveling back to my home state of Indiana tomorrow for a funeral. It’s a trip I didn’t expect to make so soon. My uncle would have turned 70 in two weeks and I have a gift I was going to mail to him. It’s a three-book series by one of my author friends. I thought my uncle would really enjoy reading them. I’m not sure what to do with them now.

Uncles and aunts are special people. Like grandparents, they are the closest thing we have to our own parents but they don’t parent us. They simply love us unconditionally and are fun and part of our personal fan club.

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My Uncle Ken was my mom’s younger brother.  She was seven when he was born and after he arrived, my mom asked her parents to trade him in for a sister. She wanted a little sister, not a little brother.

He was 13 years older than me and just older enough to be the rock star uncle that I adored. As a little girl, I thought he was beyond handsome in his senior class picture and I used to think he looked like a prince.

He loved to tease me and my girl cousins. He would say, “I hate nieces to pieces but not you, you’re my favorite.” Of course, he said this to all of us. We all thought we were his favorite. When one of us heard him tell another niece that she was his favorite, he would wink and whisper, “But you are really my favorite.”

On my 7th birthday, the United States Army sent my Uncle Ken to Germany. I was so upset that he had to leave on my birthday that I told him I was going to call President Johnson and give him a piece of my mind. My uncle just chuckled and told me it would be “okay” and that he would send me a German doll.

For weeks, I waited for that doll to come in the mail. Every afternoon  I ran off the yellow school bus and burst into the kitchen saying, “Did it come today?” And one day, there she was…the most beautiful doll I had ever seen. She had brown hair just like mine and she was wearing a traditional German dress. I treasured that doll for decades and just a few years ago, I took it to a family Christmas to show my uncle I had kept it all these years.

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After he returned from the army, Uncle Ken taught me to play chess. I then taught my younger brother, Jeff, to play. Until my brother died 11 years ago, he and my uncle would play chess together regularly. I didn’t know until much later, that Uncle Ken was a rated chess player.

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When I was a teenager, my uncle introduced me to the music of the Beatles and the Eagles and Jackson Browne and Neil Young. As we listened to his vinyl records together, he taught me to pay attention to the lyrics, the words, and to try and figure out what the artists were trying to say. Perhaps that was the beginning of my life-long love affair with words and the fun of stringing them together into many meanings.

Over the years, Uncle Ken always remembered my birthday. Some years, I would receive a note or a hand-written card from him. Those notes always included a picture of his original character, Safety Cat. Other years, he would call and remind me that it was a special day for us both because that was the day he had left home for the army and his grand adventure in Germany.

Three months ago, he called me on August 1st to tell me “happy birthday” and to say that this year was our 50th anniversary of the birthday he left for Germany. It was the last time we talked on the phone. I mailed him a letter and my latest book in September. He was a big fan of my books.

So, I will travel to Indiana tomorrow to say “goodbye” to my beloved uncle and to hug his son and his daughter. I take comfort in the fact that he isn’t suffering any longer and I wonder if he and my brother might be playing chess again together. Heavenly chess.

And, no matter what my girl cousins might think, I know that I was his favorite. Really.

 

 

Happy Halloween!

The majority of my blog posts are completely new and written the same day they are posted.  Sometimes however, I like to rework previous information when it is topical or especially interesting. This is a rewritten post from two years ago at Halloween so some of it may sound familiar to my regular readers.   For those of you who are new to my blog, I hope you enjoy this one!

My sister-in-law likes to call this time of year from now until January, “the eating season”. Halloween candy, turkey and pumpkin pie, Christmas cookies…the food during October, November and December certainly gets my attention. On January 1st we can make our new year’s resolutions to eat less and exercise more, but for now, let’s enjoy the season!

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Halloween is next week. Passing out candy to all the trick-or-treaters is one of my favorite fall activities.  Last October, I mentioned our tradition of buying full size candy to pass out on Halloween. The Sour Skittles we had last year were a big hit, so we bought them again along with Sour Patch Kids and Hershey Bars.

When I was a girl, Halloween wasn’t quite the big time holiday that it is now. You could buy costumes in the store that were made out of inexpensive fabric and had a plastic mask, but many kids just came up with their own.

I liked to dress up as a witch or a gypsy or a hobo. The gypsy costume was my favorite and it was easy and fun to put together. I would find a pretty dress (usually from my cousin’s closet) wrap a scarf around my head, wear big hoop earrings and lots of bracelets and my mom’s bright red lipstick.

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Years ago, we also used pillowcases to collect our candy. Every now and then, someone comes to my door on Halloween with a pillowcase and it always takes me back. The things that were given out when I was young were a bit different too. Chocolate has always been a favorite to pass out, but we used to get a lot of apples and homemade items too. Some people would drop coins in our bags. When I was growing up, my mom always gave out homemade popcorn balls. Do people make those anymore?

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In the Middle Ages (the 5th to 15th century) in Europe, there was an early tradition called mumming. It involved wearing a costume on holidays and going door to door to perform short plays in exchange for food and drinks.

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Halloween was originally called “Hallowmas” and in the 15th century it was thought that the souls of the dead roamed the earth on this night. Poor people would dress up in costumes representing the dead and visit houses to collect soul cakes in return for praying for the souls of deceased family members. This was called “souling” and was practiced in Britain, Germany and Austria on Hallowmas night. Later, children adopted this practice and would visit homes for food and drinks and coins.

Image result for collecting soul cakes on hallowmas

Image result for collecting soul cakes on hallowmas

Trick-or-treating or begging on Halloween originated in England, Ireland and Scotland during the 16th Century. At that time, the tradition of wearing costumes or “guising” by children and going door to door for apples, nuts, cakes or coins was commonplace. In the early days of guising in Scotland, turnips were scooped out and made into lanterns for the guising children to carry. This may have later evolved into our tradition of hollowing out and lighting pumpkins.

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Guising on Halloween is still practiced today in Scotland and Ireland, although the food received is more likely to be chocolate. There is still an expectation that the children will perform for the treats. This performance might be singing a song or reciting a joke or a funny poem. Some children take it a step further and do card tricks or play an instrument for treats. The North American traditions of saying “trick-or-treat” while guising has also become common in recent years.

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Trick-or-treating as we know it has only been around in America since the late 1920’s or early 1930’s. Before that time, there were many problems with tricks and vandalism occurring on Halloween. Gates would be removed from fences, outhouses would be overturned, pumpkins would be smashed, cabbages would be taken from gardens and tossed around, wagons were dismantled or moved to other places, and house and car windows were soaped or egged.

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Image result for vandalism on halloween

Community trick-or-treating was organized in an effort to stop the vandalism and to make Halloween a fun night for everyone.
In some parts of our country, trick-or-treaters are expected to tell a Halloween joke or riddle or to recite a poem in exchange for a treat. In other places, people simply leave the porch light on so that children will ring the doorbell and say “trick-or-treat” for candy.

Many people decorate their yards and porches for Halloween. The best decoration I saw this year was of a blow up pumpkin Pacman trying to eat three ghosts. We couldn’t find one of those but we do  have a giant spider web out front to add to the scary fun!Image result for pac man and three ghost halloween decoration

Another variation of trick-or-treating that has become popular in our country in recent years is “trunk-or-treating” where shopping malls, schools or churches sponsor a trick-or-treat event or festival all in one place for families. This is thought to be safer than going to stranger’s doors and also easier for parents.

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According to a recent article in Parade Magazine, Americans will spend a lot of money on Halloween. Estimates are that we will spend $2.9 billion on costumes, $2.1 billion on candy, $1.9 billion on decorations, and $550 million on costumes for our pets.

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Image result for pet costumes

Surprisingly enough, this $7.4 billion expenditure is dwarfed by the $616.9 billion we will spend on the “winter holidays” which include Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s. So, Happy Halloween and happy spending!

 

 

Elephants…Who Knew?

So, when’s the last time you saw a real live elephant? Or got to pet one and feed it a treat? We had these delightful pleasures earlier this month during a trip to Hugo, Oklahoma to visit a potential new store for my books.


When we were planning our trip, I did a Google search to see if there were any interesting spots to visit while we were in the area. I happened upon the Endangered Ark Foundation, which was founded in 1993 and is the second largest Asian Elephant refuge in North America. (The largest one is in Florida.)

Photo by Jeff Hull
Photo by Jeff Hull

According to their website, the Endangered Ark Foundation “is a private non-profit dedicated to ensuring the future of Asian elephants in North America, providing a retirement ranch for circus elephants, and educating the public about this endangered species.”

They recently began offering public tours for individuals twice a day on Friday and Saturday, and group tours Monday through Thursday to help to support their organization. Cost of the tour is $30 for adults, $15 for ages 4-12, and 3 and under are free.

The tours last about an hour and include an educational presentation about Asian Elephants, a guided tour of the facility, and an opportunity to see an elephant have a bath. The guide told us that the elephants love their baths so much, that they sometimes get very relaxed and fall asleep while being bathed.

Photo by Jeff Hull
Photo by Jeff Hull

My favorite part of the tour, was the chance to pet and hand feed the elephants. I expected their skin to feel smooth but it was just the opposite. It felt very rough and leathery. And, for being the Earth’s largest land animals, they were surprisingly sweet and gentle and didn’t seem to mind having humans touch and pat them.

Photo by Jeff Hull

We were able to feed two different elephants a snack of carrots and bananas. The caretakers instructed us to let the elephants take the food out of our hands with their trunks, which are actually long noses with a lot of functions. They use their trunks to breathe, smell, trumpet, drink and for grabbing things. Asian Elephants have a finger-like feature at the end of their trunks for grabbing food, toys, and various things.

Here are some other fun facts we learned about Asian Elephants during our visit to the Endangered Ark Foundation:

Asian Elephants are a bit smaller than their pachyderm cousins, the African Elephants.

Female elephants are called “cows” and male elephants are called “bulls”.

Elephants are pregnant for almost two years. It takes 22 months for a baby elephant to be born.

Asian Elephants reach adulthood at 17 years of age and live about as long as humans. In the wild their life expectancy is 60 years while they can live as long as 80 years in captivity.

Elephants have their own distinct personalities and ways of communicating.

An adult elephant can eat up to 300 pounds of food a day and weighs 6000 to 9000 pounds.

Photo by Jeff Hull

Asian elephants are herbivores and while they eat a lot of hay, they really like to eat fruits and vegetables. While we were on the tour, we were able to see the youngest elephant, (Dori Marie, who was born in July of 2015) really enjoy eating a watermelon.

Photo by Jeff Hull
Photo by Jeff Hull

Asian Elephants are an endangered species and there are between 35,000 and 45,000 of them on Earth. As of 2000, there were only 285 captive elephants in North America and today, there are approximately 500.

If you would like more information about the Endangered Ark Foundation, check out their website at www.endangeredarkfoundation.org.

Photo by Jeff Hull

Author’s note: Something I learned while researching this post, is that there is something called an “IUCN Red List” which is a system of assessing the global conservation status of different species. You can see which animals are listed in each category on their website at www.iucnredlist.org. Here are the categories:

1.Extinct (EX)
There is no living population.

2.Extinct in the wild (EW)
Captive individuals survive, but there is no free-living, natural population.

3.Critically endangered (CR)
Faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future.

4.Endangered (EN)
Faces a high risk of extinction in the near future. (The Asian Elephant is on this list.)

5.Vulnerable (VU)
Faces a high risk of endangerment in the medium term.

6.Near-threatened (NT)
May be considered threatened in the near future.

7.Least concern (LC)
No immediate threat to species’ survival.

Memories That Mean Something

“There’s no such thing as a long time ago. There’s only memories that mean something, and memories that don’t.”  –William, This is Us

This quote from last night in the network television show, This Is Us, really resonated with me. As a writer, I often reach back in time to those memories that mean something to me and I write about them.

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All of my books are based on true stories that are also treasured memories. When I wrote the original story of “The Button Box” in 2001, my intention was to write about my family’s button box so that my children would know about it and also know some of our family history. Little did I realize when I submitted it for the local community literary awards competition, that it would win first place in the “Personal Memoir” category and touch the hearts of so many people.

After “The Button Box” was printed in the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper (in Kalamazoo, Michigan) on Christmas Day of 2001, people shared my story of my memories of our button box with family and friends across the country. One local shop owner loved it so much that she had a framed copy of the newspaper story in her antique store for years!

People wrote me letters and cards for four years after the story ran in the newspaper. Remember, this was back before everyone had personal computers and cell phones and when letter writing was still commonplace.

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They wrote in their letters about how my little story had made them remember special times with their own mothers and grandmothers. They told me how “The Button Box” evoked memories of looking through their family button boxes and how reading the story motivated them to talk with other family members about their memories. Many people encouraged me to turn my story into a book.

My second book, “Which Came First?” was written as a tribute to my maternal grandmother. She had passed away and writing about her was a part of my grieving process. I kept writing and writing as thoughts and memories of her flooded my heart and mind.

During the year that we worked on “Which Came First?”, illustrator Vicki Guess and I would meet and I would tell her about my grandmother and the farm. I painted word pictures for Vicki from my memories of my grandmother. From those word pictures, she was able to create illustrations for our second book which were not only fun, but included many details from my memories…those memories that meant something to me.

My new book, “The Day The Turkey Came To School”, is also based on my memories of something that really happened. This story is different from the others because it is about a more recent memory of something special that happened one day when my daughter was a little girl and I was driving her to school. While part of the story is fiction, my daughter and I both remember the day there actually was a turkey who came to school!

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Memories are powerful…especially the good ones. Perhaps that’s why we hold onto them for so long. I love that I have written stories which bring back memories for people and also give them the opportunity to create new ones with their children and grandchildren.

Author’s note:  Books may be ordered on my author website at janetseverhull.com and on amazon.com

Be There For Others

A close friend of mine lost her mom today. Her mom lived in another state and I regret that I never had the privilege of meeting her. She passed this morning and I wish I had been able to thank her for rearing such an amazing daughter who is my friend.

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This has been a week of tremendous loss for many people. The flags are at half-staff everywhere and this is a constant reminder to us of the pain and grief that so many are experiencing. My heart aches for my dear friend, and it aches for those with family and friends who were hurt or killed at the music festival in Las Vegas.

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We’ve all experienced loss. Many of us have lost close family members and dear friends. We’ve grieved the loss of people we love whether it be from death or some other kind of separation. We know what it feels like to be on the inside of grief. We know the searing pain and the gaping hole left in our lives when a dear loved one is suddenly gone.

Right after a loss, many people don’t know what to do or to say to help. And really, we don’t need to say much other than, “I’m here” or “I’m thinking of you” or “I’m praying for you” or “I love you.” Simply showing that we care and acknowledging what people are going through is often what is most needed.

I remember after my brother died 11 years ago, friends came to my door. Sometimes they sat and had coffee with me whether we talked or not. They were a loving presence by my side.

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One friend showed up with flowers and said, “I know you are going through a hard time…I just want you to know I’m thinking about you.” Other friends sent cards or brought food. It didn’t matter what they did, but rather that they showed their love and understood what a difficult time it was for me.

Later after some time had passed, I was so grateful to the friends who asked me about my brother and would then listen no matter how long it took. It’s very healing to look back through the window of time and talk about our loved ones who have passed. Sharing stories about them helps to keep the memory of them alive.

Something that still helps me all these years later, is that my niece, Jessica…my brother’s daughter…always remembers her dad on the important days. On my brother’s birthday last week, she took her own daughter…his granddaughter…with her to decorate his grave. She wants her to know about the grandfather she never met.  Jessica sent me a picture because she knew I was thinking of him on his birthday too. We don’t forget those we love even when they are no longer physically with us.

I asked several friends who have lost people close to them, what they think helped them the most during the time right afterward. One friend who lost her sister said: “I’m not really sure except for the caring and love and hugs and the support from the church community around us. Talking about how special she was or telling funny stories and remembering memories of her helped too.” She continued by saying that her sister (who had been a teacher and a reading specialist) had a library named for her and it helped a lot to be able to honor her memory that way.

Another friend who lost his wife, said he remembered all the love and support from family and friends and from people at his church. They brought meals and invited him to dinner so he didn’t have to worry about mundane things like food for quite a while. Feeling the love and support from other people was what got him through that difficult time.

A friend who lost her adult daughter said it helped her so much when her daughter’s friends would call or write and keep in touch. It warmed her heart to receive pictures of her daughter that she hadn’t seen previously and it was especially poignant when her daughter’s friends would call her on her daughter’s birthday because they knew the day was still special.

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When someone you know loses a family member or friend, you can be there for them and let them know you care. If you knew their loved one too, it’s really special to be able to share memories and stories. That’s what people will remember…it’s your presence and the love you show that is lasting.

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