John’s Gift

First published in A Cup of Comfort for Christmas Prayer (Adams Media Publications)

Ephesians 4:7-8 –  “When he ascended to the heights, he led a crowd of captives and gave gifts to his people.”

The first time my son, John, held a crayon,

it was to create; a cat, a dog, a tree, or a creature or place no one had ever seen. He drew while watching TV, eating at the table, and riding in the car. He drew on homework, in school and in church, as if an unseen force drove his fingers and he couldn’t stop.

At age five, he began art lessons and his art teacher told me on more than one occasion, “He has the gift.” She explained how she could teach the basics of drawing, the different techniques of painting water color, pastels, charcoal, acrylic, and oils, how to study objects and draw their form. But the gift is God-given.

In her studio, she said, “I set different models on that table and have students draw what they see.”

She showed me some art her students had done, vases, bowls of fruit, a piece of driftwood, each a masterpiece by a child’s hands.

I said, “You have some talented students.”

She smiled. “Now, let me show you some of John’s work.”

I followed her to another stack where she picked up the top picture.

“This is John’s painting of the fruit.”

I took the artwork and followed her as she guided me through his painting.

“Notice the detail, how he shaded the shadow of bowl underneath and highlighted the light reflecting off the orange?”  I nodded. “But look beyond the bowl.”

 I scanned the page, holding the curling edges taut. Above the painted bowl of fruit was a light.

I glanced over at the light above the table. It was identical to the painted version, down to each tiny link in the chain holding the fixture.

“Look at this,” his instructor said pointing to his painting. “My art books on the table, my paint jar, and the shelf beside the table with each item.”

I looked at each, compared them to the real items. Chills ran with amazement through me.

“That’s not all,” she said. He includes the window behind the table? And this.”

She pointed to the black dog outside the window sitting beside a tree in the painting.

“He sees beyond the obvious, sees the bigger picture.”

She chose another of John’s drawings, a fire-breathing dragon with enormous wings and a tiny figure of a man fighting the creature with his sword. Each individual scale had been drawn on the dragon and the fire exploding from its mouth and nostrils was so real, you would hesitate touching it for fear of being burned. The ground was just as complex, with different sized stones, tiny cracks, wide crevices, and dust rising beneath the valiant man’s feet. The sky revealed a bright orange sun setting behind a rocky mountain range.

“Most artists draw from models or landscapes they see.  But John can draw this kind of detail in things he doesn’t see or may have never seen. Only a select few have this gift.”


There was that word again.

But with gifts also come trials.  John struggled in his school work.

“He has problems paying attention,” one teacher said.

“He’s looking at the board, but his mind is miles away from school work,” said another teacher.

“He needs to be in a special reading class,” still another one said.

Then we heard others word. ADD. Medication.

So, every night we read and did flash cards at the dinner table. Weekly, I took John to tutoring. Even though medication did help John concentrate and stay on task, he hated how it made him feel. We slowly worked our way through each grade.

John’s best friend, Josh, was an artist, too, and throughout school, they yelled and loped through the woods behind our house, imaginations running wild along with them. They drew their own super heroes and developed “save-the-world” plots. They created other worlds with powerful enemies threatening to take over earth and its people, drawings in such intricate detail the blades of grass in a meadow were easily counted as well as the strands of hair draping a character’s shoulders. They had big plans for their artistic endeavors. And I couldn’t wait.

When I received a letter from John’s High School explaining Awards Day and that John would be receiving an award, no one had to tell which award he’d be receiving.  I knew.

I sat on the bleachers in the gym that had filled up with loud voices and the clamor of students finding their seats. On the floor, chairs were neatly lined up and in each chair sat a student who would receive an award.  I watched John tease the girl sitting beside him, clowning around like he always did. The long program was a blur except for John’s art teacher stepping to the podium and calling John up to accept the art award.

After the program, I went to John’s art classroom to thank his teacher.

“John’s one of my most talented art students,” he said.  “He oversaw our school mural project, drew most of it. Come on. I’ll show you.” As I followed him out of the classroom, he said, “He certainly has a gift.”

When the local Museum of Art held its Youth Art Competition, John entered a few of his pieces and won Best of Show.  He also sold his first art piece.  To me!

After John graduated, we looked into art colleges. But there was one problem. School and John had had never mixed.  All he related to the word “school” were other negative words.

One day, John brought home another word. Army.

And another word.


He left for boot camp at Fort Benning in September 2006. I was mortified because troops were being regularly deployed to Iraq. Daily newscasts showed casualty counts from what was called the War on Terrorism. And there was no sign of an end to this war.

At John’s graduation, he received an award for marksmanship. I was proud, but frightened.  All I’d ever seen in John’s hands were crayons and pencils and paint brushes.  Not weapons.

From Fort Benning, he was transferred to Fort Hood. From there, after extensive training, he was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq to serve in PSD (Personal Security Detail).

Throughout my house, John’s paintings and drawings hung on the walls and I longed for his gift to once again to bring colorful life into our existence. Everyday, I questioned the Lord and prayed about His plan for John and his gift. All I could visualize was that weapon in my son’s gifted hands.

The phone rang early one morning and I rushed to answer it, smiling immediately when I heard John’s voice.

“Hey, Mama. How’s it going there?”

“Fine,” I said, sounding choked up. “How are things there? You need anything?”

“I’m fine, Mama.  Really I am. But I do need something.”


“The kids here are always asking for soccer balls.”

“Soccer balls?”

“Yeah.  And there’s this one kid—I call him Little Buddy—who comes to the fence asking me for a ball.  I’d really like to give him one. A nice one.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

I hung up, immediately called my pastor and was so excited when he said, “We’ll send John a whole box of soccer balls.”

The boxes went out, the church’s box filled with soccer balls and my box filled with goodies for John and a special ball for Little Buddy. I imagined Iraqi children crowding around John to receive their ball.

Then I knew. John’s gift still lay within his hands, not with a paintbrush or a pencil, but with his love for these children.

And with this love, he was creating something so much bigger than what he could create on paper.

I thought about God’s gift to us on starry night where shepherds were keeping their flock, how He knew His infant son would one day face powerful enemies threatening to take over earth and its people.

God’s plan was so much bigger for His son’s life, bigger than his mother Mary’s or his friends’, or even His disciples’ plans.  They all loved and honored Jesus, but sometimes they couldn’t see past the obvious to see the bigger picture.

I know now that God’s plan is so much bigger for my son John and the gift that lies within his hands.

So much bigger.

By Richelle Putnam


The Gator and the Doublewide

Willard Wiley sprawled out on his front porch alone with his bare feet propped on rotting rails

separating him from untrimmed hydrangeas his mama planted before he was born. His bloodshot eyes, heavy from an all-night slot machine marathon, never noticed the flies swarming around the uncorked jug of moonshine sitting beside his chair, or the dried blood on his shirt sleeve. Most days, his only visitor was usually the mail carrier. Her visit brought him no delight. Day after day, she filled his mailbox with another stack of past due bills and overdrafts. But today he had another caller.

“I’m sitting here on my porch, minding my own business. Ain’t bothering nobody,” Willard told the sheriff.

The two men’s eyes focused in on the jug of moonshine.  The sheriff said, “Willard, I don’t care what you do on your porch, or how much moonshine you drink, as long as you don’t harm anyone but yourself but–,”

“I didn’t have nothing to do with startin’ that fight at the casino last night. That sombitch jumped on me,” Willard said.

“I don’t give a damn about that either. The Choctaw Police handles casino matters. I’m here about the bad checks you’ve been floating. I know you’ve had a hard time since your mama died, but you’re either going to have catch up on these overdrafts or go to jail,” Sheriff Bailey said.”

“If you could give me one more week? After I win the Bass Classic this year, I can pay off every one of them.”

“Dream world Willard, you’re living in a dream world. But I’m trying to help you here. I’ll give you till Friday, that’s it. Mr. Mosley at the bank is breathing down my neck.”

“But the Bass Classis’s a week away,” Willard said.

The sheriff looked Willard in the eye and said,

“You be in my office by four o’clock Friday with the eight hundred and twenty six dollars, or your toothbrush. Don’t make me have to come get you.”

No sooner than Sheriff Bailey has gotten into his car, Willard dialed Friendly Loans and Paycheck Advance in Meridian, but he got the same answer he got the last time he tried to borrow money. No!

Willard knew Sheriff Bailey was at the end of his rope with him,

and Old Man Mosely at the bank was impossible. And his cousin J.B. was tighter than bark on a tree. J.B. was always poor-mouthing, but in reality he had ninety nine cents from the first dollar he ever made since he went to work for the highway department twenty five years ago.


Bonnie Ruth Pender poured J.B. Meeks a glass of tea, and called to the cook in her sing-song tone, “Hamburger steak, onions and gravy, Cajun fries, thousand island on the salad.”

“Bonnie Ruth, you never cease to amaze me, the way you read my mind,” J.B. said.

“Reading your mind? You’ve ordered at least a pickup load of hamburger steaks since I’ve been working here, J.B. I know what you’ll order when you walk in the door.”

Two truck drivers sitting by the air conditioner, and complaining about new weight regulations, called for more coffee.

Coming guys,” Bonnie Ruth said. She refilled their cups, collected her tip and drug herself back to J.B.’s table.

“J.B.” she said, in a tired voice and with drooped shoulders, “I don’t know how much longer I can go on with Willard. Fishing and drinking–that’s all he studies, and there is no telling how much he blows at the casino.” slotmachineAfrica

“He won’t be going back to the casino for a while. They kicked him out last night. Got into a fight. Some guy was sitting at his lucky slot machine. Lucky for him, the Choctaw police didn’t’ can his sorry ass,” J.B. said

“He’s mean when he drinks too much,” Bonnie Ruth said.

“I guess that explains the extra makeup below your eye,” Willard said.

Bonnie Ruth blushed, her open hand went straight to her eye as if to conceal the evidence of Willard’s temper, and said, “But since his mama died he’s been really down.”

“Bullshit, how many people did you beat up after your mama died? One minute you’re talking about how mean he is, and the next minute you’re taking up for him.”

Bonnie Ruth changed the subject and said with childlike innocence and dreamy eyes, “All I ever wanted was a good home, like that new double-wide I see advertised on TV.”

J.B. patted her hand and asked, “You talking about the white one, with the black shutters on the windows, and the little porch?”

“Yeah that’s the one.  I’ve dreamed of owning my own little diner too.  But at my age, what are my chances.” She ran her fingers through her hair, exposing the gray roots beneath the dye, and said, “You have to admit J.B., I’m not that little cheerleader you used to know. Just look at me.”

“I am looking at you, Bonnie Ruth.  You’ll always be that same little cheerleader to me.”

Tears gushed from Bonnie Ruth’s swollen eyes and she said, “You’re too kind J.B, but you know what Willard will do if I try to break up with him?”

“You deserve better Bonnie Ruth. Why do you waste your time with Willard?  He blew every cent Aunt Lorene left him. He brags on that boat like he bought it with his own money. I don’t know which will get him first, his ego or that rot-gut moonshine of Old Man Killabrew’s.”

“Hamburger steak up,” the cook yelled.

Bonnie Ruth served J.B. his plate and sat down across from him at his table, “After my husband Bud died, Willard was so good to me. He was there any time I needed him. He kept my old car going and lord only knows how many times he came over to my trailer and fixed the air conditioner or plumbing. He can do anything, but then there’s another side of him too.”

Their eyes met for a hurried second.  But the moment is put on hold at the sound of bellowing exhaust pipes.

She turned from his reach, but not before J.B. squeezed her soft hand.

Bonnie Ruth blushed and told J.B., “That’s Willard.”

“I know. We’re meeting here. The Bass Classic’s next week, we’re going for a practice run over at the lake.” J. B. said.

Willard Wiley wheeled his 84 Dodge pickup to the front door of Claude’s Truck Stop with his boat and trailer in tow. He paraded around his prize possession, wiping off every little speck of the red dust with his shirt tail, and then burst into the café where Bonnie Ruth waited tables for twelve hours a day.

Willard slung one leg over the back of the chair, plopped down, and said, “Hello you good-looking babe.”

Bonnie Ruth kept an arm’s length distance from her boyfriend—probably to keep him from patting her on the butt in public. “Willard, I done told you, I ain’t Miss Kitty and this ain’t the Long Branch. Mr. Claude said you had better stop coming in here all loud, with booze on your breath. You’re going to get me fired. Lucky for me, Mr. Claude’s not here right now,” Bonnie Ruth said.

When Willard looked at J.B. and told him he needed a little privacy with Bonnie Ruth, she shook her and said, “No need to excuse yourself J.B.”  She looked at Willard, “The answer is NO. I’m not loaning you any more money so you can blow it on moonshine and those one-armed bandits at the casino.

“Forget the moonshine, forget the slot machines. They got a warrant for my arrest. If I don’t come up with eight hundred and twenty six dollars by Friday, I’m going to jail for bad checks.”

“I’m sure selling that boat of yours would be out of the question. And by the way, what about the other fifteen hundred you owe me?” Bonnie Ruth asked.

“Look Sweetie I gotta have my boat. Bought a new secret lure and fish finder at the bait shop. Can’t lose this year.  I’ll pay back every cent I owe you, and buy you that double-wide too, just like I promised.”

After a quick sigh of disgust, Bonnie Ruth raised her eyebrows and asked, “How many times have you told me that same tired old line, and then came back with nothing but a boat full of empty beer cans? Why can’t you get a real job Willard?”

“You mean like J.B., at the highway department, driving a bush-hog tractor, or flagging traffic”? Willard sneered. “Not me, I ain’t cut out for that type of work.”

She put her arm around him, batted her brown eyes and said, “You ain’t cut out for any kind of work, but I tell you what I’ll do Baby. I’ll let you have the money, under one condition. Sign your mama’s fifty acres over to me.”

“Are you crazy. Mama’s land? Ain’t no way, that’s all I have left,” Willard said.

“And after you pay your lawyer, that’ll be gone too. And you’ll still be sitting in jail. I’m looking out for you. Look at this way Honey, if it’s in my name, nobody can take it from you. And when we get married it’ll be ours together. Just think how good that little double-wide would look sitting there under that big oak tree.”

“Hell no,” Willard said.

Bonnie Ruth stood, up popped her hands on her hips and said, “Okay, have it your way. I have customers to wait on. And don’t count on me to bail your ass out of jail either.”

Sheriff Bailey’s words came back to haunt him, pounding his brain.

“Wait a minute. I’ll go to the courthouse right now and have the deed put in your name,” Willard said.

With Willard gone, J.B. said, “He thinks everybody’s an idiot but him. He’ll outsmart himself one of these days.”


fishingAfricaA week later, high dollar motorhomes and SUVs crowded every parking spot at Lake Willoughby. Men sporting neatly cropped beards wearing golf shirts and matching shorts washed down rib-eyes with Maker’s Mark and single malt Scotch. Their wives and girlfriends sipped wine, and bragged on their husbands’ oversized SUVs.

“Look at all them college boys over there J.B. Not one of them knows jack about fishing this lake. Hell I grew up fishing and frog gigging in this mud hole. I know every bream bed, bass hole and alligator in here from the levee to the shallows. We going home with the money today Cuz.”

Willard’s old Dodge stuck out like a swayback horse at the Kentucky Derby among the showroom-new rigs, but that didn’t bother Willard Wiley. He wasn’t the only contestant at the Lake Willoughby Bass Classic with all the state of the art fishing gear, but he was the only one pulling a twenty-thousand dollar Bass Boat with a twelve-hundred dollar truck.

The prize money was big–big enough to make a down payment on the double-wide Bonnie Ruth had her heart set on. The time had come, and Willard gave the nod to J.B.  They launched his boat alongside the big-boys from Jackson and the Coast, and then pointed the powerful outboard toward his favorite fishing hole.

The day flew by. Before Willard realized it, the four o’clock weigh-in time was closing in, but Willard’s magic lure failed to produce. Bonnie Ruth’s words about the boat load of empty beer cans kept ringing in his sunburned head.

Willard looked at his watch and said, “J.B., things ain’t looking very promising. Pull the anchor, We’re moving to the mouth of Turkey Creek, and be quick about it.”

Willard fired the engine up and kicked her to full the throttle past his fellow fishermen, and their protests.

When his wake tossed a woman angler out of her boat, J.B. said, “That was Mr. Mosley’s wife. I think she lost her spinning reel.”

Willard laughed and said, “Too bad, I’ll send her a check for it.”

With less than an hour remaining until the four-o’clock weigh-in time, Willard packed his jaw with a fist size wad of Red Man and dropped anchor.

Willard spotted the swirl of a monster bass near a half sunken log and pointed. “That’s him, J.B. That’s the down payment on that double-wide at Happy Trails Trailer Sales.”

With his adrenalin spiked, and his eyes focused on his mark, Willard flung his lure toward the swirl and ripples churned up by a giant bass.

The anxious angler trained his eyes on the trebled-hooked lure sailing from the tip of his rod toward its target. Willard’s eyes zeroed in on the flight of his lure. He imagined himself strutting  into Mr. Mosley’s bank, and cashing the winner’s check. The sight of the airborne bait against the blue sky was like slow motion, until slow motion turned into fast forward. The lure flew past its mark and came to rest on the log. Willard’s last hope stared back at him clinging to its perch. He snatched his line to free the lure. All nine hooks planted themselves deeper into the soaked wood.  His broken line hung limp, and dangling in the muggy breeze.

Willard’s nasty temper emerged. He yelled, “Paddle over to that log so I can retrieve my lure, J.B., and hurry up will you? You’re the slowest person I ever saw.  No wonder you can’t get a girl.”

“What are you going to tell Bonnie Ruth, Willard?” J.B. asked.

“You let me worry about that.”

“That’s funny.  That log looks just like an ole alligator lying there,” J.B. replied.

“There ain’t nothing funny about that log you idiot. I don’t care what it looks like. But then, J.B. could see Willard’s mind freezing in mid-thought No, wait a minute!”  Willard’s eyes lit up, and that grin J.B. was all too familiar with came across his face–the grin that made him nervous.  He knew what the next words out of Willard’s mouth would be.

Willard spit a mouth-full of black syrupy brown tobacco juice into the water, wiped his lips, and ordered, “toss me a beer J.B.”

“We’re out of beer”

“J.B, how many times have I gotta tell you, always bring an extra-six pack?” Willard said and then explained his new plan to win Bonnie Ruth’s heart.  “Can you imitate an alligator’s growl?  Oooomp oooomp. Kind of like that?

“Sure, but–?”

“Good,” Willard said. “I can’t give Bonnie Ruth up. She was counting on me to win this contest and buy her that double-wide. I lost, but I have a plan to win her heart forever.”


Is this a great night for a moonlit boat ride on the lake, or what Bonnie Ruth,” Willard said.  “You bring the ice chest and I’ll get the paddle. And hurry up will you?”

“Willard, did you buy a new battery for that old Dodge, like you promised before I agreed to this?” she asked.

“Of course baby.” Willard took a quick look at his watch and sneaked a glance toward the dam.  It was time for J.B. to be in place behind it. Willard slid the canoe across the muddy bank, and into the water where the moonlight danced in the ripples from the gentle breeze breathing across the water. The canoe glided in silence as Willard stroked the paddle, and anticipated J.B.’s alligator growl.

“Don’t you just love it out here Bonnie Ruth? You just sit back and enjoy the ride Honey Dumpling. And don’t you worry about nothing. Old Willard’s got everything under control.”

“But I’ve heard there were alligators in this lake,” Bonnie Ruth said.

Willard changed the subject.  “I’ve been thinking Bonnie Ruth. I am gonna quit drinking and get a real job, and just fish on the side. We can live in Mama’s old house till we can we can afford the double-wide.  One of these days you can quit that extra shift at the truck stop.”

Bonnie Ruth made herself comfortable as possible on the canoe’s narrow seat, and then reached deeply within herself to find the courage she needed when she heard a loud splash and a deep guttural bellow coming from near the dam.

Willard grinned, “Did you hear that Bonnie Ruth? I know that sound. That was a bull alligator, and he’s mad. I’ve heard it a thousand times–but don’t you be scared.”

“Let’s get out of here Willard.”

“Nope!  That gator is between us and the boat landing. I can’t put you in danger. Hold my beer. I’ll take care of that overgrown lizard. I may not be Matt Dillon, but you can call me Tarzan.”

“Willard, have you gone crazy. That alligator will eat you alive. Oh, one more thing! You better leave your wallet and keys in the boat.  You wouldn’t want them to get soaked would you? And pass me the boat paddle too.”

Willard emptied his pockets, shucked his shirt, pounded on his chest, and with a Tarzan yell, he dove into the black waters of Lake Willoughby with his Bowie knife clenched between his teeth.

Swimming toward the dam he turned and said, “After I cut this gator’s throat, you paddle to shore. I’ll meet you at the boat landing.”

Willard’s heroic claim had barely cleared his lips when Bonnie Ruth heard a loud splash. Bull frogs and crickets fell mute. A dead silence hung over the lake until Bonnie Ruth hit the starter on Willard’s Dodge. The engine bellowed as soon as the new battery spun the starter.


Sitting at his favorite table, J.B. recognized the sound of the Dodge pulling into the truck stop. As he took the last bite of his hamburger steak, Bonnie Ruth strolled in. She stared at J.B. for moment, shrugged her shoulders, and took a deep breath before she sat down at his table. And asked, “You got it?”


J.B. reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out the bill of sale to his new double-wide from Happy Trails Trailer Sales and said, “It’s the one with the black shutters and the little porch. They’re supposed to set it up on your fifty acres tomorrow.

Bonnie Ruth gave J.B, the smile he’d been waiting and said, “Let’s call it our fifty acres J.B.

J.B. grinned and said, “And now we know. It was his ego that got him.”



By Ralph Gordon











It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

Holiday Events – December 20-21, 2014




Get your Merre on at Merrehope! 47th Annual Trees of Christmas 2014 opens with a reception on Sunday, November 23 from 1-5 p.m.  This years theme is “Moments to Remember,” featuring trees decorated to depict special memories such as First Day of School, Peppermint Pops, Wedding, Graduation, etc. Both historic homes will be decked out with holiday decorations and theme decorated trees.  Regular tours begin November 24 and run through December 30th, Monday – Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., with last tour beginning at 4 p.m.  Special events can be arranged on Sunday and in the evenings by appointment.


The 1st Annual Santa’s Christmas Factory will be held at historic Soule’ Steam Works in downtown Meridian. The Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum is sponsoring this event that will feature “falling snow” and a snow-filled play area for the kids. If your children enjoy the movie “Frozen”, they should enjoy this event. Santa_Christmas_Factory_ArtworkA small Christmas train will be in operation for the children to ride. The Soule’ factory will be decorated for the holidays. Last tour begins at 7 p.m. each night!





Come experience the most wonderful time of year with an all-new, interactive outdoor light show! The 120-acre farm will be covered with scenes telling the true story of Christmas – perfect for families, churches, and youth groups! Take a wagon ride around the farm and listen to Santa and Rudolph share the story of Christmas and the true reason for the season. lazyacreschristmasOpen Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. through Christmas (weather permitting). Also open December 22nd, 23rd, and Christmas night.





Big Elf on a REALLY BIG SCREEN!  Meridian’s Temple Theatre proudly presents a special Holiday movie matinee for the entire family!  Come see Will Ferrell in “Elf”.  Special Guest Appearance by SANTA!!  LIVE MUSIC —  Mr. Frank Evans at the console of the Temple’s Mighty Morton Theatre Organ will entertain the audience by playing your favorite Songs of the Seasons!  Admission is just $2.00 per person. We are also collecting canned goods for charity at this event, so feel free to drop an extra canned item in the lobby. Temple






M E S S I A H   Christmas production is this Saturday, Dec. 20 at 6 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 21 at 10:30 a.m. Come celebrate the birth of our Savior with us this weekend. Admission is free. Messiah






Saturday, make and take great holiday crafts and gifts each Saturday until Christmas at the Children’s Hands-On Museum of Tuscaloosa! CHOM, children Explore, Create and Discover every time they visit.  When we say “hands-on” we really mean it!  Learning through play is what our exhibits are all about, and you are encouraged to touch, feel and play in our exhibits.  Three floors of fun wait for families and school groups, too.  With 24 exhibits, CHOM offers newborns through age 13 a fabulous place just for them!  Exhibits, special events, holiday celebrations and parties are all waiting at CHOM!


Giving: An Everyday Celebration!

The Holiday Season brings forth feelings of gratitude, charity and selflessness.

Thanksgiving is the time to thankful.  Christmas is the time for giving. The New Year ushers in resolutions that usually include being more thankful and more giving throughout the year. Being thankful and charitable are actions we know we should do and need to do.  Our consciences nag us, but how often do we follow our Good Samaritan instincts and help others who are not in our social, cultural, ethnic or religious realm?

We spend hours upon hours shopping for our children and family members, people we give to all during the year.  Let us ask ourselves this question.  Is that really giving? Are we teaching our children that the spirit of giving really is all about them?  And if we are, is that a good thing? Maybe the best gift we can give our children is teaching them how to give throughout the year and not just during the Christmas season.

Try these few tips to teach children about giving and why giving is so important.

  1. Children who eat three meals a day along with snacks have a difficult time comprehending hunger. A simple family exercise can be to skip a meal (taking into consideration all health concerns within the family) and to talk with your children about those who rarely get one meal a day. Skipping a meal will certainly not hurt anyone, but hunger pangs are reminders that for some those pangs never go away.  As a family, watch documentaries on hunger and discuss ways your family can make a difference, even to those suffering in other countries.  Research various organizations and, as a family, choose one to focus on. Everyone should chip in on the monthly or yearly contribution to this charity. In fact, keep a money jar just for this charity. Let your children see you slip quarters, dimes, nickels, and dollars into it.  They will learn to do the same.

  2. Create food baskets to take to shut-ins and the elderly. Before selecting items, make sure about the dietary restrictions of the recipients. Shopping for basket items presents perfect opportunities to discuss health concerns and why being selective when choosing items is so important.  Studying labels with children educates them on nutritional content, but also helps them learn new vocabulary words that improve their reading skills.



    Image courtesy of Ambro at Free Digital Photos

  3. Help feed hungry animals at animal shelters by buying dog food and taking it to your local shelter. First, check with the shelter about food and snack choices. At the shelter, have the director share information about homeless animals. Volunteer as a family at the animal shelter and consider contributing financially.

  4. Giving to and volunteering in the community gives a family a sense of ownership in their community. Volunteer at the soup kitchen.  Children too young to volunteer can donate food items they pick out at the store.  Families can also clean-up their community by picking up trash.  Many cities offer a city-wide volunteer day. Main Street programs do this for the downtown area as well.  While working downtown, share with children some of the history of the downtown area, especially the old buildings still standing.

  5. rake_papaija2008

    Image courtesy of Rake at Free Digital Photos

    Offer to wash the windows or do yard work for an elderly neighbor. As a family, you not only do a good deed, but you and your children get to know someone you may have only waved to in passing.  Provide refreshments so that when you take a break, you and your neighbor can fellowship and enjoy getting to know one another.




  6. Create a photo journal of family giving. Taking photos during the preparation steps (shopping, gathering tools, etc.) and during the giving occasion to create beautiful memories for generations to come.  Write about your experiences individually and as a family. Provide writing prompts for you and your children and decorate your papers with markers, crayons, and stickers, whatever to make the journal fun and creative.

Teaching children that the giving season doesn’t come once a year may well be one of the most significant gifts they receive in a lifetime.

by Richelle Putnam


Learning to Give

We Give Books

Free Rice

Locks of Love

The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center – The Dream

When the Mississippi State Legislature enacted Senate Bill #2666 in 2001 establishing the Southern Arts and Entertainment Center, Inc., d/b/a The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center (MAEC), there was no warning of what was to come in 2005 when Katrina’s fury struck Mississippi and hurled her into years of disaster relief and recovery. Neither was there warning of a downswing economy and soaring gas prices. Life is that way. It changes every moment. The saying, “Only the strong survive,” has nothing to do with physical strength, but everything to do with perseverance and carrying on with a dream in spite of adversity. The journey for the MAEC has been a long, difficult struggle, but then again…we’re talking about Mississippi.TheWorld

And when you talk Mississippi, you’re talking rich soil that grows anything and the Mighty Mississippi that stretches beyond all other rivers in the country.

You’re talking Elvis Presley, Sela Ward, William Faulkner, Morgan Freeman, Jim Henson, Tennessee Williams, Mac McAnnally, B. B. King, Oprah Winfrey, James Earl Jones, John Grisham, Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, LeAnn Rimes, Eudora Welty, Leontyne Price, Walter Anderson, Faith Hill, Jimmy Buffett, Robin Roberts, and, yes, the list goes on because we’re talking about Mississippi. Factories and businesses come and go. And have. But Mississippi’s legacies will never leave the ground from which they were birthed. In fact, these legacies continue rising to infinite glory through stories, music and photographs, creating histories for generations to come.

This is the dream the MAEC refused to surrender.

In 2009, MAEC’s Walk of Fame began its bronze legacy pathway from the historical MSU Riley Center for the Performing Arts toward the MAEC building site and will continue its trek as the MAEC moves toward constructing its state-of-the-art museum on the corner of 22nd Avenue and Front Street in Meridian, Mississippi, the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers.

ThePlaceSupport of this museum helps the MAEC accomplish its mission in recognizing and honoring legendary artists through a hands-on Hall of Fame and other exhibit halls that visually, auditorily, and kinesthetically educate, inform, and entertain every visitor. In addition, the museum will steer these visitors to other museums throughout the state, forming a partnership that benefits all Mississippi regions and their legacies, from Tupelo’s Elvis, to Indianola’s B. B. King, to Pascagoula’s Jimmy Buffett, to Jackson’s Eudora Welty, to Ocean Springs’ Walter Anderson, and…well, you know the rest.

This is Mississippi,

where stories pass from generation to generation and where legends are made; where visitors from all over the world come to walk upon its soil and to drink the water in hopes of becoming a part of Mississippi and making Mississippi a part of them.

Join the MAEC Newsletter to stay updated about the progress of the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center and step into conversations about the Mississippi artists who made history and who are making history. But be prepared to pull up a chair and sit a spell because here in Mississippi, you just can’t rush a good story.


Visit MAEC

My Friend, Anita

First published in The Copperfield Review; Reprinted in The Copperfield Review, Tenth Anniversary Edition

Every morning, before color stipples the horizon, my men become silhouettes within the gray fog. I draw my shawl around me, and, from our porch, watch them trudge to the coalmines. Iciness bites. Soon, it will nip at the sun’s warmth, just as coal dust depresses the light within the tunnels and out here as well. Nothing can conquer coal dust air. Neither rain nor sunshine.

I grab my wagon and it creaks as I pull it along the dark street past my friend, Anita’s. Women and children step in behind me, their wagons groaning, their voices muffled beneath the coal cars’ screech. I step over puddles from last night’s rain and pass Dago Road, Welsh Lane, Hun Street, and Scotch Town, smelling the stench of outhouses. Foreign tongues meld together, struggling to find their place. I pass the mine boss’s house, knowing that no wind passes through his plaster walls to nibble away at his children. But at least my family doesn’t have to live on the side streets. At last count, thirty lived in Badero’s shanty. “Sleep comes only in shifts,” he’d said, his eyes white wells on his black dusted face. “But it comes.”coalmining3

Cold numbs my face, hacks through my shawl, but I search the culm for coal, and what I find I load into my wagon, praying the company police have already patrolled. But ever since the cave-in that buried Ghita alive, I am content to search the bottom of the rubble.

On my return, I pass Anita’s again, the few pieces of coal bouncing in my wagon. Stubbornness doesn’t allow me to stop.

My Alfredo’s fingers would be frozen now from picking out rock and slate from the coal, his jaws working the tobacco wad his father gives him each morning. I fret over him.

“He is only seven,” I said to Benito months ago.

“Cara,” he answered, his eyes as pleading as his mother’s were when we sailed from Venezia. He squeezed my fingers. “We will use the age blanks. No one will know. Everyone does it and we need the money.”

“So he will lose a finger perhaps, or maybe end up like that Mickey Pick-Slate, ground up with black coal? Eh? Is that what you want for our boy?” My anger warmed me, and I would’ve rather felt the stinging cold.

Benito wiped my tears, little comfort to this frantic mother. I remembered a sun that lit the sea, breezes without the smell of coal. I longed for the old country. My country.

I gather my bucket; head for the door that hangs crooked and fails to shield the wind. Through its cracks, I view the culm.

Outside, women and children line up at the pump with wooden buckets. Washday. I see Anita. She smiles. Her little Calandra plays with Enea’s Bianca. Their childlike chatter vibrates in my ear.

“Buon giorno,” I call.

“Ah, Gianna, good morning to you,” and for a moment, Anita’s kindness loosens the muscles that encase my bones.

I say, “The cold bites hard today.” I set my bucket on rocky ground, tighten my shawl, hug and pat my arms, waiting my turn.

“It is that,” Anita answers. “Alfredo is doing well in the breakers?”

“He returns as black as his shadow, lagging behind Benito and Carlo. He enjoys playing games at lunchtime, and has learned finger language.”coalmining7

Anita’s laugh is light, like a chicken feather a gale has taken up. “My Savino’s fingers spoke much faster than his mouth.”

My own chuckle is a stranger. “Alfredo barely stays in the tub long enough to scrub the coal dust off him.”

“The water is quite nippy by the time our young boys sink in.” Anita’s cheer attempts to lift my despair, but while cold rock and darkness bury my men, it does me as well. “Marcello says this John Mitchell plans to make the mines safer. Benito will go to the meeting?”

“No!” My cross reply startles Anita. I lower my eyes to the muddy ground. “Forgive me,” I mumble. “This union frightens me so. Already, the Americans pelt us with stones, and play tricks on our children. I want no more trouble.”

“Gianna, they think we take their jobs. They are frightened as well. This Mitchell, he will make things right. He says to put aside our differences, join our sorrows in this black, heartless country.”

I listen, knowing things are worse for those of us with foreign tongues. So does Benito.

coalmining5Just weeks ago, the Peruggia’s house collapsed and fell into a mineshaft. The family had to split up, board in different shanties. Yesterday, they demolished the Salerno’s house to add more space to the culm. These coal bosses care not whether we live or die, only that we labor endlessly for black gold. Oro nero.

Anita first told me of this John Mitchell in the spring as we tilled our gardens, mentioning him often as we swapped canned foods and jams, or strolled to the store that plucks us like we’re fat hens ready for the oven.

I grin remembering when Anita’s words stroked my ear. “These prices make me long to be a mule wandering in the shafts. They bear less weight than we do, and are treated to free apples, carrots and sugar.”

Our hearty laughter had drowned out the screech of coal cars at the top of the breaker, and heavy machinery crushing rock. It was like a gust that had broken past the culm without gathering stench. Fresh air.

“I must go,” I blurt out and hurry away, leaning with weight of my bucket, splashing through puddles.

“Gianna,” Anita calls. I stop, and turn my head. “Things will not get better until our men strike.”

I say nothing, but limp toward my house, water sloshing from the bucket.

“The meeting is tonight at seven,” Anita yells, but I ignore her like I do Slavic gibberish.

My house is cold, drafts creeping in through loose planks and slits. The breaker whistle cries, and I know my Benito, Carlo, and Alfredo are digging into their lunch pails, eating under filtered light that resembles more gloom than illumination.

coalmining4In the young years, when the whistle blew at odd hours, I’d hurry with Anita to the colliery to see who might be hurt or killed. Finally, we stopped going. No matter how much one begged, the coal bosses told us nothing. Not until the Black Maria–the horse drawn wagon doomed to carry the dead–pulled up in front of the victim’s house, would we know whose loved ones would wail through the night.

My hands tremble as I wash out stained clothing. I think of Anita and our hot cups of friendship. We’d sit atop huge anthracite rocks plucking chickens, saving feathers to make soft pillows. In the large brick oven behind the outhouse our families shared, we baked bread to welcome new tenants.

Now I avoid Anita, not wanting to hear anymore about this John Mitchell and his union. It is hard enough for my men. I wish to lighten their load, not burden it.

At least, my Carlo is a nipper now, tending the shaft door. He tells me Anita’s Elmo comes through quite often guiding that mule of his. Carlo and Elmo are good friends, as Anita and I once were.

Just the other night, Carlo said to Benito, “Soon I will work with you in the mineshaft.”

But Benito wouldn’t hear of it. “If there’s a cave-in, there would be no one to care for your mother. Alfredo is too young.”

Anger blanches my knuckles and I feel hate gnawing at my bones. This black gold determines our lives. The same black soot that taints our fresh air, taints our lives as well, clings to our shanties, clothes, even goats, chickens, and cows. It follows us everywhere. “I am your master,” it taunts. “Without me you are nothing.”

Coal bosses toss aside injured or dead miners like useless dead animals, fearing that one moment might be lost from the precious “oro nero”. Who cares that our men are mangled, forced back to the breakers like young boys to sift and glean until black lungs slay them.

Sometimes, Benito throws his pain to me. “Oh, Gianna,” he cried, face buried in his black hands. “I had to scrape Aldo’s body up with a shovel.”

I crushed my body to his hoping to melt the emotions this coal country has frozen. That same month, they deducted the time he spent scooping up the dead man from his wages, precious time away from the black gold.

I think of this John Mitchell. What can he do?

The breaker whistle screams.

My hands falter, as does my heart.

I close my eyes. My men are healthy, alive. They will return to me. They will. The breaker whistle never lies. Someone is hurt or dead. But it can’t be one of mine.

I scream inside my head, “Non e’.” I clutch my breast, fall beside the tub. “Santa Maria, proteggevi,” I pray. “Protect them.”

I take up my brush and continue to scrub my men’s clothes with ferocity. Tears stream, burning my cracked lips. My hands grip the wet shirt and rub ferociously, but my troubled mind scurries into every direction, to my Carlo, my Benito, my Alfredo. My hands ache from wringing the tattered garment. Fear is like a knife stabbing me over and over.

Outside, nattering in the village grows louder. I drop the shirt into the bucket, rise, wiping my hands on my apron. I step out the door, and descend the stairs, into the muddy street and gray dusty air.

The Black Maria rattles down the road, a spew of mud in its wake. Women and children scuttle up. “Who is it,” they yell, but the driver urges the mule onward, and won’t stop until he sees the one who will claim the body.

The wagon draws closer. To my street. To my shanty. To me.

I hear the creaks.

Anita turns to me. Our eyes caress each other as they have done many times before.

No. Si fermava!

My heart flutters like an injured bird. I lumber to Anita, clasp her hands. The Black Maria stops between our shanties.

Sandro climbs down. I squeeze Anita’s hand, just as she squeezes mine.

I meet Sandro’s eyes. They mourn.

I suck in a whimper. It’s all I can think of to do. Anita squeezes me again.

Sandro stops. His shadow veils us and turns us black like him.

He reaches out, touches Anita’s shoulder.

“Sono dolente, Anita. Some loose rock fell. Marcello was under it. There was no time.”

Anita shrieks, “Mio Marcello.” She rushes to the Black Maria. The village crowds around to comfort her, while I, her lost best friend, am frozen like the day. My mouth waters, as if tears have flooded into it because my eyes are full. I turn away, lumber up the loose stairs to my house, and shut myself away from this black world.

coalmi‌ning6My men are silent at supper. I miei uomini. My men. I am the one who speaks.

“You and the boys will go, Benito.”

Benito gazes up from his plate. “Where?”

“To the meeting.” I nod. “Hurry now. It has already started.” Benito is still unsure. “Anita, Savino, and Calandra will stay here as long they need to. Anita will not go to Widow’s Row.”

Benito scrapes his chair across the floor. “It will get better, Gianna, you will see.”

“Vatene,” I say. “Go.”

The house withers into silence. I cry again, for Anita, for me, for all of us. I slog outside; watch my men disappear into darkness, as they do everyday into the mines. Light beams through Anita’s window. I pull my shawl around me. Coldness is perfect for death. I sigh and climb her stairs. I knock. My lips are quivering when the door opens and I see Anita’s red eyes and face. I draw her into my embrace, “La mia amica, Anita,” I cry. My dear friend.


by Richelle Putnam


Bad for Your Health!


I racked my brain for an excuse.

It’s too hot, I feel bad, I have other things to do. I fabricated every excuse known to man to get out of cutting the grass, none of them ever worked. Could there be anything on the face of the earth short of algebra class worse that cutting grass?

What the heck, I said to myself, Mama was never going to buy my excuses. I may as well get it over with. That left me with no choice–go to the store, get the gas, and then come home and mow the lawn. So I loaded the gas can in trunk of her old Plymouth and headed for Oliver’s Grocery and Texaco in Mashusla where old men wearing overalls played dominos and dipped snuff.

After pumping the gas I stopped short of walking into the store, and counted my money one last time. Enough for the gas, a Coke, a pack of Marlboro, and a little left over. Mama never asked for the change.

Walking out of the store, I heard the sound of tires sliding on gravel just ahead of blinding cloud of dust. When everything settled down a white ’64 Chevy Impala began to emerge from the manmade dust storm. All this spelled one thing—Uncle Dave.

Uncle Dave’s abrupt halt from his careless driving caused his head to slump forward, testifying to the pathetic statement of his condition. His eyes resembled that of a man without a soul, or a love in his life, or anything to look forward to, but only things one might look back upon with memories which possessed him like a demon with a choke hold on his spirit and character.  I suspect that he didn’t want to look back, but he couldn’t resist it, or avoid it. Perhaps the memories were branded in his head to where his mind was locked in retrospect, refusing him the privilege of seeing the good in himself, and nothing to look forward too.

cigaretteIt made me sad and sick to see Uncle Dave that way. I wanted to ignore him, and go on home. I’d rather be cutting grass. But I couldn’t do that. My dad’s brother was my biggest hero, after Dad.  Somewhere in his tortured heart, there has to be a soft spot, suppressed, longing to break the bonds that imprisoned it. His sun aged face, cheap whiskey, and an ever-present cigarette between his lips, caused him to look older than his forty-five years, but something much more scorching than the sun, more damning than the alcohol, and even more toxic than the nicotine that clogged his lungs, gnawed at his soul and his body.

Once a neat and handsome man who never allowed a single hair on his head to be out of place, but now in ragged overalls, stained with red mud and grease, hanging loosely on his thinning frame, my uncle bore little resemblance of the man I used to know. His Cat Diesel Power cap sat crooked on his sweaty head. The odor of smoke and alcohol about him displaced the aroma of his spice for life, and he didn’t seem to care. That was the hardest part for me to accept, but when he saw me, a frail glimmer of eagerness radiated from his face, and for a fleeting moment, I caught a glimpse of the uncle that I missed so dearly. A rare sight since the day Dad was killed in Biloxi.

Uncle Dave coughed, and asked me if I’d pump him five dollars’ worth of gas, and then he handed me a ten-dollar bill.  “And make it premium,” he said.

“Glad to Uncle Dave.”

After pumping his gas I paid Mr. Oliver, and headed back outside and offered Uncle Dave his change.

“You keep it son,” he said, and refused to accept it, in spite of my protests.

I wanted to lecture him about driving in his condition, but I knew it would do no good. Uncle Dave seemed hell-bent on destroying himself. I could only pray that he didn’t take some innocent person with him.

He coughed again, deeper and uglier this time. He caught his breath and asked, “Want to drive a real car?”

“Sure. But give me a minute, be right back.”

I hurried over to Mama’s car, took a look around and hid my cigarettes under the seat, then hurried back to Uncle Dave’s Chevy.  I slid behind the wheel of the Impala and eased the shift lever into drive.  With my hands on the wheel, and my foot on the accelerator, I could feel the power in my hands. It felt good. The rumble of the big V8 was a far cry from Mama’s wimpy 4-cylinder Plymouth.

“Head down Greenfield Road, not much traffic there. Careful, this baby has a 327 under the hood. Don’t let her get away from you,” Uncle Dave said.

In spite of his warning, I slammed the accelerator to the floor. Gravel ground beneath the tires, and banged with a metallic thud within the fenders. After feeding my hankering to feel the Chevy’s power, I backed off the gas, and cruised down the narrow country road past the post office, past the church and past the cemetery where Dad was buried.

It’s impossible for me to drive by the cemetery without gazing toward the spot where three generations of my ancestors lay at rest. But Uncle Dave eyes remained fixed, and straight forward, as if to deny the graves any measure of passageway into his mind.

Uncle Dave and I made small talk, mostly about girls, but never about his ex-wife, who I still called Aunt Betty. She left him not long after Dad was killed, and his drinking got out of control.

Maybe Becky Neil will be outside, I thought. I rounded the sharp curve in front of her house. My eyes found her sitting on the porch with a dishpan in her lap helping her granny shell peas or maybe it was butterbeans. I honked, hoping she would see me sitting behind the wheel of the white Impala. She never looked up, but her granny waved. I was a little embarrassed, but driving the hottest car in Mashula, Mississippi was more important than Becky Neil…at least for the moment.

“Take a left up here and drive down to the old cotton gin,” Uncle Dave said.  “When you get there, drive around back, just to be safe.”

Icottongin (279x181) eased the Chevy over the bumpy driveway of the abandoned cotton gin, and passed the old scales, careful not to scratch my uncle’s prized possession on the bushes and blackberry vines when a fawn wobbled into my path. The mama deer was not far behind.  She nudged him with her nose and they trotted off and out of site, leaving Uncle Dave and me as the only creatures in sight, save for the gnats and horseflies.

“Stop right here son, under the shade of this big oak,” he said. Uncle Dave peered in every direction, as if he was making sure no one was around, and then began reminiscing about his older brother.  He talked about the good times, and their adventures growing poor up on a dirt farm in Bougahatta County. He talked about the hard times too, but not in a melancholy way. He found a way to laugh at them. We laughed a lot. I knew he embellished most of the stories, but that was okay, and he knew I was on to his game, and that was okay too. For a few minutes on a blistering August afternoon, my uncle seemed to be his old self, and I had my hero uncle back with me, but then without warning and for no seeable reason to me, he relapsed. The sad and lost look that he wore, only a few minutes earlier, found its ways back to his face. Again I found myself looking at a man who had not learned to forgive himself for his own misdoings.

Uncle Dave said, “My brother was my best friend.   He was only a year older than me, but a lot bigger. Like you.  He always looked out for his little brother. Fished me out of the creek when I was skating, and the ice broke. When Eddy Morgan jumped on me on the school bus, he whooped his ass before the driver could get stopped and pull him off. We were like two peas in a pod all our lives. For twenty five years, your daddy and I worked just about every big construction job between Memphis and the Coast.”

“I miss him too Uncle Dave,” I said.

He sat without speaking for a moment. His tired eyes drifted, but his voice became stronger in spite of the curse of his nasty cough and shortness of breath, “I was out with an attack of emphysema that day. They put a younger fellow on the crane in my place. He was a good man, but short on experience. Strong wind came up with no warning. If I’d been in the operator’s seat that day, your daddy might still be here.”

Along with the tears, my uncle tried desperately to suppress the next cough which sucked the very breath from his lungs. He struggled to finish what he had to say. “Since your daddy’s no longer here, there’s something I feel the need to take care of for him. I owe it to him, and I owe it to you, but you must promise never, ever to tell your mama. She’d have my hide.”

“There are lot of rituals, and trials a boy has to endure in his quest for manhood. Some of them pleasant, some not so pleasant. I hope this one will be pleasant. Your daddy would’ve wanted it to be special for you. He wouldn’t have wanted this to take place in some cut-throat beer joint or at some wild party on the banks of the Chunky River.  It’s my obligation to make sure it happens, and happens the right way.”

My uncle reached into the gallows pocket of his overalls and pulled out a half-pint bottle of moonshine he bought from Booger Tyner, and said, “Now that you’ve turned eighteen, it’s time for your first drink of whiskey.”

moonshineHe stared at the bottle for a moment before he opened it.

I wasn’t sure if his transfixion on the bottle was that of admiration or contempt—admiration for giving him some sense of peace, or contempt because the peace that it gave him was nothing a more than a fraudulent quick fix, which compounded the voids in his life. Whichever it was, the bottle had its way.

He handed to me and said, “Take a little sip, just a little one.”

I put the bottle to my lips, turned it up and slugged down more than I intended. I did my best not to make a face after swallowing the stuff, but I failed.  My eyes watered, my stomach churned in protest, but I caught my breath, wiped my lips with the back of my hand like the cowboys on Gunsmoke do, and said, “Good stuff,” in spite of the burning that lingered in my mouth and throat.

“That’s all you need for now,” Uncle Dave said. He took the bottle from me, and without saying another word, took a ceremonial drink to seal the rite of passage.

“Your daddy would be proud,” he said, and then he lit up a Marlboro, and sucked the smoke deep into his lungs. He coughed and told me, “Don’t never start smoking son. It’s bad for your health.”

Neither of us spoke on the way back to the store, and I never noticed if Becky was still on her granny’s porch.  Uncle Dave went on his way. I didn’t know where he was going, but I prayed he got there in one piece. I went back into Mr. Oliver’s store and traded my cigarettes for a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and a King Size Coke, then went home and cut the grass

by Ralph Gordon (Click on photo for more about Ralph)


Ralph Gordon, Author/HIstorian