Vintage SRA Pencils copyright beabethompson.com

Vintage SRA Pencils copyright beabethompson.com

I fully intended to get in at least four hours of writing done this morning. Fully intended. Next week starts RWA chapter Kiss of Death’s Book In A Week program. My first productivity derailment was Windows and AVG slugging out dominion over my computer. Windows denied me entry because of my poorly selected start-up selections. While waiting for my computer to come to its sense, I started sorting through a huge stockpile of office and art supplies. That’s when the real detour started up.

Years ago Mom was head of a federal reading program in her home parish in Louisiana. This was after going back for an ME, as well as teaching kindergarten, first grade, and fifth. Her first vocation was an artist. She’d lived in Chicago, taught in an impoverished area’s grade school while studying art at a nationally known art institute. After one near tragedy, she went home to my grandparents, getting a BA in education, getting married twice to my dad, and having two little girls. She ended up rearing us alone, and gave up her dreams of becoming a famous artist. You might say her students became her works of art, and she loved teaching them.

When she passed away from lung cancer over a decade ago, the minutia of Mom’s life seemed random. Nothing of her life as an artist remained except for a beautiful old wooden artist’s paint box. I took home a collection of colored pencils intending for my small boys to use them for school projects, but this part of Mom’s past got lost in the muddle. While I was sorting through supplies for the Hindu charity my son’s interning for this summer, I found these pencils. What caught my eye was the labeling of the partially empty box. SRA.

My fellow Hodge Elementary School chums remember SRA as a reading program that enticed children to read through different tiers of stories. It was color-coded, with reading cards filed neatly in a beautiful cardboard box display. A child would pull out a card, working their way up the system to higher levels. The higher the level, the more difficult the reading. There were color-coded pencils to manually keep track of your progress, the same ones pictured above.

This program was one of the many reasons I love reading. SRA was like a genie’s lamp, or a magic passport. I ate up all the SRA cards and went to Gold level, reveling in the one few thing I counted as a talent, my reading ability. Along the way each card taught me something new like far away places like Pompeii. History, geography, it was a perfect program to egg children on in reading, and I adored SRA.

When I saw the little box, a little part of me went fangirl. I searched through the plastic tub that held our motley collection, and picked out all the SRA pencils Mom had brought home over the years. Multiple hues of the rainbow were there, including well-worn silver and gold, the pinnacles of the reading program. This was one of those moments when I missed Mom most. A little bit of her life was there spread out on my desk, labeled in fading words. The hours she spent teaching children to read were the most rewarding of her long career as an educator, and here was a tangible reminder.

Just out of curiosity I looked up SRA to see if it was still around. Yep, still going, still being used in classrooms. Almost fifty years have gone by since I first made its acquaintance, and the magic of reading is still with me.

Thanks to all the teachers who started me on this path, especially the teachers of Hodge Elementary, and my mom.

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Mariah’s Skillet Cornbread just after being poured into an extremely hot, seasoned black iron skillet.

Dear Mariah:

Even though you’ve been gone for most my life, I wanted you to know you still play a big part in it, especially now at Thanksgiving. As the woman who made my grandfather’s house run smoothly, you were a queen of a special realm. My earliest memories are of eating your lovingly and expertly made meals, and thinking that no one in the entire world could out cook you.

Walking into my grandfather’s kitchen and smelling yeast rolls, frying chicken, and gravy roux was the most sublime, beautiful thing I remember of those childhood days. These days I find myself thumbing through recipes my mother transcribed from you as you cooked. These few stained pages in her own handwriting are part of the chain that leads to you, to the cooks that taught you in Monroe, Louisiana, and the cooks that taught them. It’s a chain that goes back hundreds of years.

One of the smartest things my mother ever did was purchasing a copy of Old MacDonald’s Farm Cookbook from the farm where you were born. My mother told me many of the recipes were similar or the same as yours, and that’s why my copy is battered and falling apart. I knew from your own mouth how that farm called you back, visiting with cousins, aunts, uncles, and the communion of shared food.

I think my mother was too spoiled, and perhaps too intimidated, by your culinary skills to learn how to cook. The lord knows her own mother had no reason to put on an apron and cook when you had the skills and organization. Mother used to joke that she could burn water. My dad fell in love with a beautiful blue-eyed girl who had no idea how to put a meal together, and he once saved a biscuit she’d made to regale his friends. You can imagine how well that went, and how little inspired my mom was to improve. My mother was your baby too, and you probably wanted to bean my dad with your best skillet the first time you heard the story for yourself.

Which brings me to cookware. Who else but you taught my mother the value of black cast iron cooking, especially using a big skillet to make your unbelievably delicious yellow cornbread? You also taught me the surprise of picking up a lid on a stock pot and finding the most blissfully beautiful beef vegetable soup, made from Sunday’s roast scraps, vegetable leftovers, and a huge amount of skill. That soup alone should have won you a spot in American History.

When I cook Thanksgiving dinner, I feel you and my mother (who incidentally taught herself to be a very good cook once you’d passed away) following me through the kitchen. My mother would be tut-tutting my egg peeling, you would be tut-tutting any use of premade commercial cornbread dressing mix, and my Papaw would be patting his feet impatiently wanting to know when dinner would be on. At least two of you would be wanting why I have no bacon grease to cook with.

Over fifty-five years after the first time your beautiful brown eyes first saw me, I send my love and thanks. Happy Thanksgiving to you in that huge Southern kitchen in the sky, where I know you’re telling the angels how to make perfect turkey and dressing.

Love,

Beabe

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