I am sitting here with my coffee, finally thawed out after walking in the below freezing, morning air. I have discovered that it is when I walk that my mind opens to new ideas, new ways of thinking about old ideas, and connections between things that did not seem remotely related before.
I started off thinking about a book I read by Silas House and Neela Vaswani, Same Sun Here, which is the story of a twelve-year-old boy and girl who are pen pals. It begins as a project for school. The girl lives in New York City and is a recent immigrant from India. The boy lives in southeastern Kentucky near the Tennessee border. Clearly these two children come from diverse backgrounds and yet it is clear that many of their thoughts, desires, and needs are quite similar. Through their letter writing, (and yes, they actually write letters, you know those things people used to take the time to write by hand, put in an envelope, stamp, and send through the mail), they get to know one another and learn to appreciate the differences between them. They continue to communicate even after the assignment has been completed.
I felt an immediate connection with the characters in this book because my mother is from southeastern Kentucky and my father is from upstate New York. To my New York relatives I was considered a country bumpkin, albeit affectionately. To my friends in Kentucky, I was a city slicker, in spite of the fact that I did not set foot in New York City until the ripe old age of twenty. I have heard all the stereotypes about hicks, rednecks, city slickers, and snobs. What I have come to realize is that these groups are not limited by geographical location. They exist everywhere. I should know. I’m related to quite a few of them.
The particular memory that captured my attention this morning was one that involves my maternal grandmother. She grew up and lived on a farm most of her life. She was a small woman, about 5 feet, 2 inches tall. I remember that I was almost as tall as her by the time I was ten. I am not sure she graduated from eighth grade. She was married at age 16 and gave birth to six children, including a set of twins. They both died, one at birth, the other before reaching a year of age. So four children survived to adulthood, the youngest of which is my mother.
Most people would consider my grandmother ignorant and backward because she was not well-educated or worldly, and simply because she was from southeastern Kentucky. She would probably have been one of the first to agree with them. She never tried to be anything she wasn’t. She was neither ashamed nor prideful. She was simply Grandma and she taught me many valuable lessons. I remember some of her frequent reminders – “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” “Before you go criticizing, walk a mile in their shoes,” and “You treat others the way you want to be treated and you’ll be alright.” But the lesson that came to mind today was one that occurred when I was about seven.
We drove up to visit my grandparents most Sundays after church. Grandma would have Sunday dinner ready for us and then we would spend the remainder of the afternoon visiting. On this particular Sunday she taught me to embroider. I remember her ironing a pattern onto a scrap piece of material. It was a pair of cardinals perched on the branch of a blooming dogwood tree. First, she carefully placed the stamped cloth into hoops so that it was easier to handle. Then she separated the thread so that I could work with just two strands. Next came threading the needle and knotting the end. She patiently showed me how to make the basic embroidery stitch and watched as I made my first hesitant attempts. I stuck my finger numerous times, but I was determined and spent the entire visit working on that picture.
Before it was time for us to leave, she came to check my progress. She sat down next to me and I handed her my work. She said, “Now Carolyn, you know how to tell if someone’s a good embroiderer?” “How Grandma?” I asked with wide-eyed curiosity. She carefully turned my picture around, “You look at the back. If their work looks just as neat on the back as it does on the front, then you know they’re a good embroiderer.”
I have carried that memory and that lesson with me throughout my life, and every time I pick up a needle I think of her. But it was not until this morning that I realized this lesson goes well beyond embroidery. Now whether or not she realized that, I am not sure. But the same is true of life. If I endeavor to be my best and do my best, then my life should look just as “neat” on the back as it does on the front. If someone were to turn my life around, the me they would see should be easy to recognize. While the two may not look exactly the same, it would hopefully be clear that just as much care has been taken with what is on the inside as with what is on the outside.