Monthly Archives: January 2021

Bread and Butter Gifts

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My parents entertained quite a few out-of-town guests who came once or twice a year and stayed several days. It meant good times and good food. We kids loved it. We learned a lot about geography and the way other people lived. We collected new jokes and heard more of our own family stories as the grownups talked. We had opportunities ourselves to share and entertain as we put on plays and demonstrated some odd skills like rolling down a hill inside a rubber tire.

Usually, when the guests first arrived they presented Mamma with some delicacy or interesting souvenir, their “bread and butter” gift. Sometimes it was what Mamma, after they left, called a “white elephant,” something useless which would gather dust in a corner. Sometimes it was something of lasting value, like the photo album one dear lady brought. She spent her visit making pictures of all of us to fill the album. Sometimes it was a box of chocolates which, of course, was eagerly received by our family.

Seldom was the gift either bread or butter. So why did Mamma call those offerings “bread and butter” gifts? All these years my siblings and I, as well as many of our friends, have given and received these interesting gifts and thought “everybody” knew them by the same name.

I became curious the other day as to the how, when, and why these niceties were called “bread and butter” gifts. A quick viewing of Google answers brought up only “bread and butter letters.” I have yet to find any direct reference to bread and butter gifts. Handwritten notes thanking hosts for their hospitality seem to have been greatly inspired by Jane Austen’s stodgy character Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Collins wrote effusive letters to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet after his visits though their daughter, Elizabeth, rejected his proposal of marriage. A thank you note later became known as a “collins,” as well as a bread and butter note. It is still a very thoughtful gesture to let one’s host know they enjoyed a visit even if by texting, e-mailing, or calling. And we don’t have to use the flowery hypocritical language of Mr. Collins. Sincere gratitude in a few words does wonders.

The phrase “bread and butter” is much used. Bread is the staff of life and butter is the enhancement of it. When one earns his “bread and butter” he’s making a living, maybe not a fortune, but a living. When one reminds a person to beware of the side his bread is buttered on, it usually means the same as “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” If two of us were walking hand in hand and came to an obstruction, such as a rock or a tree, we’d say “Bread and butter on my side” as we separated for a moment. It meant we didn’t want to be separated for long.

A bread and butter gift, as Mamma taught us, is a thank you expression that is quite fun. Let it be something your host(s) will remember you by and, more importantly, be blessed by. Maybe it would be a product from your area, such as peanuts from Georgia or maple syrup from Vermont. Or if you enjoy crafts you might use one of your creations as a gift. I like to make jelly so that is one of my standby thank you gifts. I even tucked small jars of Mayhaw jelly in my suitcase to share when we visited friends in England.

Thinking back to those visitors to my birth family, I think the gift that made a huge impact on all of us was given by Nina Jordan, a book titled “Home Toy Shop.” My younger sister inherited the dogeared copy and still refers to it when needing a children’s craft idea. On rainy days we had wonderful times making everything from an oatmeal box doll’s cradle or merry-go-round with exotic animals to elaborate paper dolls, whistles, airplanes and more.

Mamma, when she visited in our home, always had something to pull out of her suitcase to surprise us, a delicate teacup, a fingertip hand towel. But one time she didn’t have anything. After peeling potatoes one day she asked me to take her to the store. There she proceeded to choose a sharp paring knife for me. “Every woman needs a really sharp knife in the kitchen,” she said, obviously not satisfied with the one she’d used on the potatoes. I still have that bright little knife and it is still sharp!

By the way if you do bake bread or churn butter, those would be lovely thank you gifts. It might be hard, though, to keep them fresh and unmelted on a long journey. I can just see the yellow stream dribbling from your suitcase as you head through an airport security check!

I Peter 4:9: Use hospitality one to another


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A Cat Named Bertha

Longing to belong

The cat came to us yowling. That is what cats do when they need, are desperate for, attention, isn’t it? They don’t just meow or howl. They YOWL!

Our two cats, Sassy and Cramer, ignored this interloper for the most part. Occasionally they tried to run her off (“Scat, you don’t belong here!” “This isn’t your place!” “Go on! This is our family!”). But usually they avoided her, never lay down near her, moved if she came near them, never looked her in the eye. If she tried to eat from their dishes before they were satisfied, and sometimes when they were, they turned her away in definite authoritative feline language. Most of the time, to them, she was invisible, a nothing.

Charles, my husband and vet, declared this cat was in heat. That’s why she was rubbing our legs, legs of strangers, and yowling like an injured bobcat. I talked to her about it. “Look, there’s no help for you here. We have one neutered male and a female. You need to move on.” Charles tried to get her in a carrier so he could take her to the office. If we couldn’t learn who she belonged to, he’d spay her and maybe we’d keep her. But this cat resisted being placed in the carrier. She was fast and sharp. Very sharp! She might let us pick her up for one quick minute but no entry into that cage, no thank you!

It became a ritual every morning to see if the new cat was still here. She always was, though she wouldn’t sit on the kitchen window sill with the other cats, whether they wouldn’t let her or whether she knew she didn’t belong. Instead, she came to the breakfast room window and yowled her heart out there. Yes, yowled. I took a picture of her thinking it was a picture of longing to belong. I was sorely tempted to let her in.

But we would not let her in. Charles is allergic to cat fur and long ago we decided his exposure every day to cats at the clinic was enough. Our cats would stay outside.

In due time (about ten days as is normal) this cat stopped yowling and just meowed and sometimes howled. We thought she might try to go back home, wherever that was. She had a flea collar on. Someone had cared for her. She had been an indoor cat, Charles said, that’s why she shamelessly pleaded to come in the back screen. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic and the need to keep our distance from strangers, we might have tried harder to find out from whence she came. Our few inquiries brought up nothing.

A disturbing result of the new cat’s presence in our yard was that the birds left, all left. Our feeders and bird baths had been busy every day until she yowled into the yard. When I saw her threatening the one or two birds who did perch on the feeders, I lectured her. “Now you just need to move on. I do not want anyone doing harm to our birds.” Of course she purred as if I’d given her a nice stroking. We loved watching our birds. But what could we do? Our other cats, well fed and lazy, no longer were any threat to the cardinals and the chickadees. But this cat!

Days went by. Weeks went by. She was still here. She consistently walked with us around our circular driveway, around and around and around. Twelve circuits equal a mile. Even if she were nowhere in sight when I started out, she would hear the clatter of my walker wheels on the pavement and come springing out of the bushes, beautiful dark grey and white fur a blur, her tail high like a flag. When she slowed down I could see her distinctive markings on legs and very long tail. Her tail drifted along behind her like the graceful train of a lady’s evening gown.

One day as we walked together I told the cat “If you’re really staying here you need a name. What should it be?” Sometimes you name a pet for distinctive coloring or other appearances. I watched her long tail just skimming the pavement as she slowed along making sure to stay close beside me. It could be “Long Tail.” But that did not sound very ladylike. It was the month of October. What about some form of the word October? Maybe “Octy,” or “Octo”? Those names did not fit this cat. So I decided to try the other end of the word. “Ber,” I said out loud. The cat looked at me with her amber eyes and gave a soft “meow.” She may have thought I was a bit chilled by a sudden breeze. Then out of my mouth came the name “Bertha!” She looked at me again as we ambled and rattled along. “Yes, Bertha it is!”

Folks always seem startled when I tell them her name. I don’t think they’ve ever heard of a cat named Bertha.

Bertha now has her regular turn at a feed bowl. The other cats have accepted her, though they sometimes still seem a little aloof. She continues to walk with us. She enjoys the children when they come. Charli can sit on the grass and play with Bertha who climbs in her lap, soaks up a good stroking and all but hugs Charli’s neck. She has a fine coat, is regularly inspected by our favorite veterinarian who picks her up at times and carries her around the circle, or as far as she will allow. And Bertha has earned her ticket to the theater aka the kitchen window sill, a very good place for watching humans.

We speculate sometimes about where Bertha came from, what her back story is. Did her family move away and leave her behind? Did she just walk away one morning and never go back? Could she not find her way back? She is pretty skittish, sometimes bolts like a flushed rabbit. Did someone abuse her? We’ll never know. Just as we’ll never know what became of two cats in past years who left us mysteriously. All we can do is love her and give her a bountiful life with cozy places of shelter and plenty of food and affection.

Slowly the birds are coming back. The bird bath out back was rimmed with rusty breasted robins one day this week and cardinals are beginning to visit the feeders again.

So Bertha is here to stay. She has a name. She has been accepted by her peers. She has been forgiven for her trespasses as an enemy of birds.

A couple of things of which the coming of Bertha reminds me: we all long to belong and when we trust in Jesus He accepts us just as we are with our many sins; when we have a name and our name is written in heaven, we have solid security in belonging for eternity.


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Magnolia Seasons

They’re dramatic and gorgeous in the spring. Those ivory blossoms high in the stately trees, or sometimes low enough for a better view, are so satiny and elegant. I think of the movie “Steel Magnolias” and how fragile and totally tough those women were, sticking together in good times and bad. The magnolia blossoms in all their finery and strength do fade away, their petals turning brown as they make way for the bright pods of summer and fall.

It is an experience to view a magnolia blossom up close!

Those pods really can be a nuisance. If you don’t watch where you’re stepping, you can take a nasty tumble. Charles diligently picks them up calling them “apples.” They are far from being Galas or Golden Delicious but the squirrels love them. Even before the bright red berries shine on the droop shaped pods, the squirrels manage to get to them even if far out on a limb. They have a wonderfully good gnawing old time dropping berries and finally pods in their eagerness.

Pine and magnolia are good friends–and there’s that beautiful summer pod.

This year some of us painted brittle smooth magnolia leaves for Christmas tree ornaments. Mattie decorated her large leaf with red and white peppermint stripes. Charli and I did Santa Claus faces with the pointed part of the leaf all white beard. Kaison, though asked to to please do something Christmasy, chose to make a very colorful monster, then made crosses at the edges saying they stood for Jesus protecting us from the monster. You might think these decorated leaves could not be preserved from one year to the next but this entire art project originated from a leaf decorated by Debbie Ashley, our Christi’s mom, many years ago. That leaf, cherished in the family’s beautiful collection of ornaments, is still bright and intact, a “steel magnolia.”

Thanks for the inspiration, Debbie!

The trunks of our magnolias fascinate me. The silvery bark decorated with lichens is full of character. Sometimes I’m reminded of ancient maps, Athens to Rome or Constantinople to Stockholm. Other times I see oceans and lakes and islands, so many odd shapes. Some trunks are pale with dark spots in a varied pattern like the coat of a cat. The bark has a lovely texture too. It’s not papery like birch or nubby like an oak, not flaky like a pine. The magnolia is very smooth looking but when you run your hands over the bark you’ll feel those lakes and oceans and islands. If you close your eyes, you may think you’re reading braille, or trying to!

Here, in the “dead” of winter, the magnolia is as beautiful as in any other season. Flowers in the spring, pods in the summer and fall, rich dark green glossy leaves in every season, faithful and true as an old friend.

Why would I write about magnolias on this sad day, January 6, 2021? It is sad because those who champion abortion of babies and defunding police, among a few goals, have won both houses in Congress. It is also very sad because Trump supporters have displayed their frustration over injustices by storming the Capitol in an unconscionable way.

Why would I write about magnolias? I wondered myself. I guess it’s because I need to focus on something beautiful and hopeful, something that reminds me that, in the words of Browning, “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world.”

God knows what is happening in our America. He is in control, though in this season it may not appear so.


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