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We had a wonderful holiday, but I sure am grateful for a long weekend of relaxation!
My stepdaughter was supposed to come over Christmas Eve, but all the flooding prevented that from happening. Finally, Christmas afternoon, more roads had opened, allowing her to eat dinner with us.
Others were not so fortunate, and spent Christmas Eve and day in evacuation shelters. This was Arkansas’ wettest year since 1882. It’s a record we’d rather not break anytime in the next several decades, believe me.
Dear people with whom I stood in line yesterday:
Each year, I’m amazed by the number of you who think that your 7-month-old will not only sit compliantly on some strange old guy’s lap, but will look directly at the camera and offer a beatific smile.
REALITY, people. REALITY.
You’re NOT going to get that perfect picture. Not with an infant. Not with an unpredictable, squirming toddler. It will not happen.
So please, for the preservation of my sanity — DO NOT SPEND 10 MINUTES HOGGING SANTA WHILE THE REST OF US — those who understand the reality of small children and picture-taking — WAIT NOT SO PATIENTLY.
It’s rude. And delusional.
Besides, the kid-freaking-out-on-Santa’s lap photos are the most fun. Those are the pictures relatives will pull out years later and cackle over.
Those attempted posed shots? BORING.
So move on. My kid wants to tell Santa that she wants a reindeer for Christmas. We don’t have time to wait for your 2-month-old to muster his/her very first-ever smile.
Secondly — those of you who try to cut in line, using the excuse that you have a small child — LOOK AROUND! Everyone in line has a small child. So move to the back and wait like everyone else, please.
I don’t mean to be testy. But the only reason I enter a mall during Christmas season is so the kids can visit Santa. Other than that, I avoid such places because crowds of people make me hostile.
In case you hadn’t noticed.
Meet the Catos. I first met them as they stood in front of the ruins of their blackened home. A gas leak had caused an explosion.
E.J. is 94. Flora is 85. Despite having lost everything, the Catos were cheerful and joking around. “We still have each other,” they explained.
That day marked the first time, in my 16 years of reporting, that I left the scene of a disaster feeling uplifted. Sheriff’s deputies and other reporters later described feeling the same way.
In today’s newspaper, there’s a folo on the Catos. I’ve pasted it below. But first, check out this photo of me with the couple. Don’t they look like they should be my grandparents?
Now here’s the story:
By Cathy Frye
–> LITTLE ROCK — The young farmhand and the younger, winsome farmer’s daughter stood by a lush, gaily decorated tree as the preacher read aloud their wedding vows.
It was 10 p.m. Christmas Eve 1938.
The groom grinned beneath a head of thick, wavy hair The petite bride – a “pretty little thing,” he liked to call her – wore a royal-blue velvet dress.
The couple loved Christmastime. How special, how magical it would be to wed on Christmas Eve, they thought.
So, on the spur of the moment, they’d headed to the preacher’s house, rousing him from his bed to perform the impromptu ceremony. His wife, still wearing her robe,served as the witness.
The groom and his bride positioned themselves by the Christmas tree. Its top brushed the ceiling and its ornaments glittered in the soft light.
They thought it was the most beautiful tree ever.
A NEW HOME
For 70 years, life remained full and joyous for E.J. and Flora Cato. They welcomed a son, grandchildren, great grandchildren and the many great-grandnieces and nephews who scampered in and out of their home.
Two days before Thanksgiving, the couple’s mobile home in south Pulaski County exploded.
They escaped unharmed and stood in a drizzling rain, staring at the ruins.
But they shed no tears.
Yes, nearly all of their belongings had been destroyed.
“But we still have each other,” they told everyone, over and over.
In the aftermath, E.J. – known as Papa – was thrilled to find that his electronic keyboard wasn’t damaged.
“He kept that in his workshop,” Flora said. “Playing on it was one of his pastimes.”
Just hours after the explosion, E.J. sat down at his keyboard and launched into a buoyant rendition of “How Great Thou Art.”
Neither Flora, 85, nor E.J., 94, appeared worried about their situation. God would provide, the couple declared.
E.J.’s niece, Zanette Cato, took in E.J. and Flora and bought them clothes. Meanwhile, dozens of Arkansans who read about the Catos in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent money and furniture to help them start over.
Within a few weeks, the Catos had moved into and furnished a cottage at a Little Rock housing complex for senior citizens – all thanks to the kindness of those touched by their plight.
“Another lady was supposed to get this cottage, but she told them to give it to us,” Flora said. “I tell you, God has just supplied our every need.”
Last week, E.J. and Flora eagerly welcomed a pair of guests into their new home.
“Before we do anything, I want to show you my place,” a beaming Flora insisted. “We’ve been so blessed to get back what we have.”
Throughout the tour, E.J. frequently interjected his own excited comments.
“I want to show you a picture of my wife when she was 30,” he said when the group entered the bedroom. He held up the photo, grinning proudly.
Flora looked pleased, albeit a little flustered.
“He was so glad it wasn’t ruined,” she explained, blushing.
A second sentimental item, also salvaged from the blackened wreckage, sits on a dresser: the cake topper from the Catos’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
The dresser is part of a bedroom suite and mattress set donated by a local bedding store. The Catos’ grandson, Jarod, works there.
Returning to the living room, Flora pointed at a new flat-screen television.
“Ron Routh – he owns the wrecker service – brought that by. I kept him when he was a little boy. He brought it over here one night and set it up for us.”
Former President Bill Clinton, who befriended the Catos during his years as governor, sent a letter after the explosion. Flora read it aloud:
Dear E.J. and Flo,
I was very sorry to hear about the tragic loss of your home, and I wanted you both to know that you’re in my thoughts and prayers. The optimism, gratitude and love you share for one another is truly heartwarming, and I’m so glad that the two of you are together safe and sound. Hang in there. I’m pulling for you, and I wish you all the best.
“The Clintons and us were friends,” Flora explained. “We lived two blocks from him when he was governor.”
Clinton sometimes sent letters to the Catos, especially on birthdays. After being elected president, he invited them to his inaugural ball. When the couple celebrated their 65th anniversary, he called with congratulations.
Every year, Flora faithfully sends in an anniversary announcement and accompanying photo to the Democrat-Gazette. She’s also a frequent contributor to the newspaper’s letters section of the Voices page.
On the day of the explosion, which authorities later blamed on a gas leak in the couple’s water heater, crowds of friends and family surged onto the couple’s property in rural Pulaski County.
“We went to pieces when we got the call,” Zanette recalled. “We didn’t know what to expect. But they were so strong.”
The couple’s only worry is making sure everyone knows how thankful they are for thehelp they’ve received.
Flora gave a handwritten thank-you letter to a reporter, asking if there were a way it could be made available to newspaper readers.
An excerpt reads:
There is no way we can ever thank people for clothes and gifts to make our cottage a beautiful home. … We received so many offers of help – sweet cards and copies of lost pictures. God has supplied our needs.
A LASTING LOVE
That the couple survived the explosion was deemed a miracle by many.
Both were in the living room at the time. Normally, Flora would have still been asleep in the bedroom. But she awoke early that morning.
“If it had happened 30 minutes earlier, you’d have had a double funeral,” E.J. said.
He and Flora first met in early 1937, when Flora’s father, a Woodruff County farmer, hired E.J. to help with that year’s crops.
For five months, the young man boarded with Flora’s family. E.J. considered Flora a “pretty little girl,” but too young for romance. He was 22. She was 14.
Later, when he realized he had feelings for Flora, he decided to move out for fear of things looking improper.
E.J. briefly worked in Blytheville before heading west, working crops in Arizona and California. In 1938, he returned to Woodruff County and the woman he would marry.
E.J. farmed with Flora’s dad until 1953, when he and Flora moved to Little Rock. E.J. took a job as building engineer for the Winfield United Methodist Church, where he worked for 32 years.
When he retired, the couple bought a half-acre in rural southern Pulaski County. They wanted more room for a garden, flowers and especially a shed for E.J.
“He’d go out there and piddle every day,” Flora said, shooting her husband a fond smile. By “piddling” she means playing his prized electronic keyboard.
These days, E.J.’s keyboard is parked in the cottage’s dining room, which means Flora enjoys a free concert each day.
Well, mostly. Sometimes she’s relieved when he takes a break to watch television.
Ask the Catos how they’ve remained married so long, and you’ll get two answers – one serious, the other joking.
“We’re not just lovers, but best friends,” Flora says.
“Well, she never considered divorce. Maybe murder a few times,” E.J. adds.
“Papa and I have had a really good life, with so many blessings,” Flora continues.
After the explosion, someone asked, “Well, Papa, how does it feel to be homeless?”
E.J. had a ready answer: “I didn’t have anything when I came into the world, and I won’t be taking anything on my way out.”
On Christmas Eve, the Catos will celebrate their 71st anniversary.
Their tree, only a few feet high, isn’t as tall or dazzling as the one they stood beside at their wedding.
But to Flora and E.J., who will spend yet another holiday together, it’s the most beautiful tree ever.
So up until a week ago, the children’s Thanksgiving art remained hanging on a bulletin board at the daycare.
On little handprint turkeys, each child in the E-man’s class had written what they’re grateful for.
Examples included: I am grateful for …
Then I got to the E-man’s, which read: I am grateful for …
For those of you who didn’t read this morning’s Forces of Nurture column, go here.
Those of you who came here via the column, I now present a few pictures taken during the Christmas of Calamities. (Note: Tootie’s very short hair was the result of her experimentation with scissors. It took a year to grow back out. Go here for a glimpse of what she managed to do to herself.)
And now, photos:
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So take your average squirrel:
A bit rodenty for my taste, but the bushy tail helps me forgive him for his origins.
Awhile back, the E-man kept having nightmares about squirrels. His piercing screams in the middle of the night sent us sprinting down the hallway, convinced there must be a real live animal lurking in his bedroom.
“When did he develop such a fear of squirrels?” I asked Hubs.
“I have no idea,” my spouse replied.
“You didn’t let them watch anything questionable on Discovery, did you?” I pressed.
“No! We haven’t seen any shows that feature squirrels. And besides, what could possibly make them look scary? They run around clutching acorns. It’s not like they’re launching themselves at antelope or gazelles.”
And then it hit me.
Each week, the kids’ daycare has Movie Day. The teachers are pretty strict about what movies children can bring in. Only G-rated movies allowed.
Could it be that someone had successfully smuggled in the 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?
I did a little Googling and pulled up this clip from YouTube. It shows the complete squirrel scene, during which 100 or so squirrels launch themselves at Veruca as she screams and thrashes. Eventually, they surround her, tap her on the head and then carry her off to the hole that will dump Veruca into the incinerator — which, luckily, isn’t working.
Well, hell. That scene creeped me out. No wonder the little E-man was so terrified.
This happened last year. I figured he had long gotten over his fear of squirrels — until this morning.
As we walked out onto the front porch, the E-man froze.
“Squirrel!” he shrieked. Then he vanished back into the house, slamming the door behind him.
This morning’s incident eradicated any lingering guilt I had about not taking him to see Up with Tootie.
Because this —
— would surely have plunged the E-man into hysterics.
First, the background:
My mother-in-law — known by all as Mammaw — passed away last February. This will be the family’s first Christmas without her. At the time of her death, Mammaw had three sons, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Three three sons, from eldest to youngest, are Hubs, Steve and Burt.
Steve married Perfect Linda three years after Hubs’ and my wedding. Steve brought four adult children to the marriage; Linda has two adult daughters and a 15-year-old son.
Steve’s sons are the ones who gave Mammaw here great-grandchildren.
Still with me?
OK, so when Steve’s kids started having babies, Perfect Linda went by “Granny.” She doesn’t look like a granny, but to each their own.
Hubs and I took the kids down to his dad’s house this weekend. My father-in-law goes by “Papaw,” which I always thought went well with “Mammaw.”
Saturday afternoon, Steve and Perfect Linda came over with Steve’s oldest grandchild, Seth, age 2 1/2.
And suddenly, Perfect Linda went from Granny to Mammaw.
My brother-in-law referred to her as Mammaw throughout the whole visit. “Go ask your Mammaw,” he would say, prompting all of us to swivel our necks in anticipation of seeing the REAL Mammaw, who, of course, is no longer with us.
This is Mammaw, matriarch of the family.
Now granted, I have issues with Perfect Linda. (She’s moody and has no sense of humor. Plus, she won’t allow my brother-in-law to have anything to do with his family. Yeah, I know. He doesn’t have to obey. But he does. Point is, she doesn’t like us.)
So to hear Steve refer to Linda as Mammaw struck me as inappropriate and galling. Not to mention, confusing to the youngest grandchildren and the great-grandchildren. I mean, Mammaw was Mammaw. Perfect Linda is NOT Mammaw.
I’d be interested in hearing your opinions, however, since Hubs plans to talk to his brother about Perfect Linda’s bizarre metamorphosis from Granny to Mammaw.
I say that given the circumstances, she should stick with Granny or pick something other than Mammaw.
I can’t figure out where the name change came from. Did she do it? Or is Steve trying to create a new Mammaw?
Hubs shot these gorgeous photos today, and I just had to share.