Simple writing prompt mentally sends me back in time to the classroom

By Bruce Stambaugh

The assignment was to write about an object of our choosing located in this sterile college classroom. Typical for a writing workshop, the prompt was designed to get the participants to use sensory descriptors to illustrate the object.

I chose the pencil sharpener affixed to the wall by the only doorway in this institutional setting. The sharpener stood out for me because it seemed so out of place in this 21st century technologically driven global society of ours.

manual pencil sharpener

An old pencil sharpener.

I wondered what in the world an old-fashioned pencil sharpener was doing in this classroom in 2017? Did anyone even use pencils anymore? I thought college students recorded everything on smartphones, iPads and laptop computers.

The answer to my silent wondering became evident as I scanned this bland environment. Everything in this classroom screamed 1977.

Boring blue-gray paint covered the cement block walls on three sides. Strange, random circular insets pockmarked the poured cement west wall. Front and back white boards with telltale scribbling from previous lessons served as classroom bookends. Parallel rows of the old-style fluorescent lights emitted a familiar faint buzzing sound. The textured tile of the suspended ceiling held the lights captive. The well-worn Formica tabletops told their age. I wiggled in the uncomfortable hard plastic molded seats riveted to shiny steel supports that were the student chairs.

My eyes kept returning to the pencil sharpener. It engaged my mind, generating pleasant, personal flashbacks to my teaching days now long past. Nostalgia washed over me as I studied the sharpener and rapidly scrawled my notes. I pictured my classroom setting.

Keen, evocative thoughts flooded my brain bringing a smile to my face. This pencil sharpener was situated exactly where all of the others in my elementary classrooms had been, right by the door and hung conveniently above a wastebasket.

The sights, sounds, smell, and textures associated with sharpening a pencil mentally filled my senses. I fixated on the circular dial with holes on the sharpener’s face. It accommodated various pencil sizes, the bulbous container that held the shavings, and the crank handle. The sharpener possessed me.

elementary school

Where I was principal for 21 years.

To keep the custodian happy, I often emptied the pencil sharpeners of their spent contents myself. Students occasionally managed to somehow miss the wastebasket, spilling the shredded pencil shavings and pulverized lead and graphite residue onto the floor.

The pencil sharpener was the office water cooler of the elementary classroom. If a line formed, I instinctively knew students had more than pencil sharpening in mind.

Some students made a game out of it. They would stand quietly and crank the sharpener’s handle, grinding the poor pencil to a pulp.

Despite my obsession, the sharpener’s reservoir often overflowed its ground up contents. The intermingled woody, metallic scent of the shavings invigorated my senses. That pungent freshness helped compromise the curious blend of 30 human body odors. I’ll let your imagination fill in the details.

black and white photo of students

Some of my first students.

With the students studying at their desks, I quietly emptied the sharpener’s mutilated remains into the wastebasket with several quick shakes back-and-forth to ensure all the grindings found their mark. I replaced the sharpener’s rounded case with a metal-against-metal clink and returned to my instructional duties.

I was both surprised and elated by how this unique, unsophisticated classroom mechanism had spawned such poignant recollections for me. This writing assignment triggered treasures long forgotten, aromas and delightful textures resurrected from my 30-year career as a public school educator.

I wouldn’t trade them for anything, not even an electric pencil sharpener.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Welcome to Virginia!

red ripe strawberries, Virginia

Welcome to Virginia!

My wife didn’t hesitate when our daughter asked if she wanted to go pick strawberries. Like most folks, we love just-picked berries. If we still lived in Ohio, the berries likely would need several more days before they would ripen.

Having the opportunity to pick and enjoy red, ripe strawberries this early in the season was a reality check for us. We really were in Virginia! And for the record, the berries were delicious.

“Welcome to Virginia” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Settling into our new home is settling

Mole Hill, Harrisonburg VA

Our new view.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Moving is said to be one of life’s most stressful events. It hasn’t turned out to be that way for my wife and me. Taking a year and a half to make the transition from Ohio to Virginia likely took some of the pressure off of us. We are so glad we took our time.

We love everything about our new home, our new setting, and our situation so far. Please don’t misunderstand. It wasn’t easy leaving home, community, church, relatives, and friends that we were so attached to for all of our adult lives. Tears were shed to be sure.

For now, Neva and I have been busy arranging our new household inside and out. It’s been both a chore and a joy. Others who had experience moving advised us to take our time.

moving day

Moving in.

Sort one box at a time they said. And for the most part, that’s about the pace we have gone. Our expert movers helped make that happen by carrying and setting up all of the weighty and cumbersome furniture.

Our daughter’s family visited us a lot, helping us to unpack and put things away. Our IT son-in-law got us up and running with the internet, email, and the new smart TV he so kindly purchased for us with our money of course. I’m sure he’ll be over often to ensure that it’s working.

Most of our close neighbors introduced themselves, too. They all are as friendly as can be. One even brought homemade rolls and the best strawberry jam I ever tasted. That alone almost made the move worthwhile.

Of course, we moved to be near our grandchildren. Besides visiting us several times already, we’ve jumped right into their activities, too, sometimes simultaneously. Like when we attended our granddaughter’s violin recital. Her big brother was playing baseball two hours away. We covertly watched the action in animation on a smartphone.

We arrived in time to help our daughter celebrate another birthday. That’s something we haven’t had a chance to do in a long, long time.

We kept the unpacked boxes in the garage so as not to clutter the house. And did I mention that we love our downsized, one-story retirement home? We do, very much.

new home, transplating

Help with transplanting.

In fact, neither Neva nor I can stop smiling we are so pleased with how everything seems to be fitting into place. We rightly purged our belongings before we left. We are also glad we made the physical changes to our place that we did. It’s still a work in progress, especially the landscaping.

Most importantly, our new house feels like home. I didn’t think I would say that this soon after the move. But I did, and it does.

The day after we moved in we took a break to attend a May Day event at the elementary school where the two younger grandkids are students. It was a fun time even if it was a bit chilly.

Our creative daughter helped arrange a design for our new landscaping. We had the old, overgrown shrubs pulled for more palatable, harmonious plants. Spring rains made them easier to plant in the thick, sticky Virginia clay they call topsoil.

After the house was nearly put together, I set up my bird feeders. It didn’t take long for the usual suspects to find the free food. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Mourning Doves, and the ubiquitous House Sparrows are some of the species so far.

Our feathered friends appear to be settling in much the way we are. It’s good to be at home this far away from home.

backyard birds, Virginia

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Male House Finch.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Contemplation

female rose-breasted grosbeak

Contemplation.

The Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak usually gets all of the attention for its stunning coloration. I think the female is attractive in her own right. The blended browns and creamy whites form an incredible pattern to help her hide from predators.

I captured this photo of a Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak as she appeared to contemplate when and how to approach the black oil sunflower feeder in the backyard of our new home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I was pleasantly surprised to have this species arrive at the feeder not long after I had hung it in the Mountain Maple tree.

“Contemplation” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Grateful for a creative mother

Rural road.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My late mother was very creative. She expressed it so many ways in the long life that she led. She did so through her versatility as a woman, a wife, a mother, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, and an artist.

When Mom died five years ago, Alzheimer’s disease had removed her far from the woman I remember as a youngster and as an adult son. Her eyes no longer had that sparkle of awareness of the beauty she had seen in everyday life, the joy she recreated in her vibrant landscape and still life paintings.

Marian Stambaugh, Mother's Day

Mom.

Those paintings reflected her very being and the beauty she brought to life. Mom painted hundreds, perhaps thousands of renderings, mostly watercolors. But many of those paintings were left unfinished.

Mom was a perfectionist when it came to her paintings. If she felt she couldn’t get it right, she left the picture partially finished, hidden away. Going through her things, the family found stacks of incomplete paintings. To others, the paintings looked fine. Mom only saw the flaws.

Mom was too self-critical when it came to her paintings. She felt they just didn’t measure up to the works of her peers. The attitude of Mom’s dominating father perhaps influenced that lack of confidence at a young age. Mom wanted to go to art school. Instead, she was sent to business school to help her prepare for a job should one be needed.

In those pre-World War II days, women were to work until they married and then raise any and all children that came along. That’s just the way it was, and in many respects, still is in today’s global society.

Our father, himself a controlling man in his own right, saw both Mom’s physical comeliness and the beauty within. He loved almost to a fault this kind, generous, creative woman who was our mother. And he saw her talent in recreating the beauty all around her through her early drawings and paintings.

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Dad must have also sensed Mom’s lack of confidence in revealing this creative side. So Dad encouraged Mom to take private painting lessons given by established, prominent artists, and at the Canton Art Institute.

Thanks to her cohorts and mentors, Mom painted prolifically. Using mostly the medium of watercolor, her still life and landscape scenes were usually vivid, real, inspiring, eye-catching.

Again prodded by Dad, Mom entered art contests. She did so reluctantly, but also successfully. Mom won several awards, including the Peoples’ Choice Award on more than one occasion. Mom modestly accepted the accolades.

Mom’s creativity extended beyond brush and easel. She dressed splendidly but not opulently. She couldn’t afford to do that if she had wanted. Mom simply made do with the wardrobe she had.

wedding photo

Mom and Dad on their wedding day, August 15, 1942. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Stylish wouldn’t begin to describe my mother. Even late in her battle with Alzheimer’s, Mom continued to dress herself, always in a color-coordinated outfit. Residents and staff at the retirement community where she lived her last days often complimented Mom on her stunning look. In her typical modesty, Mom just smiled or returned a pleasant “thank you.”

Mom’s creativity remains alive through her realistic paintings and in our pleasant memories of her loving motherhood. More than that, the artistic genes of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will continue to contribute to life’s magnificence in various means, manner, and places.

Mom’s passion for painting taught us all to appreciate our surroundings, look for the beauty in everything, and generously share that splendor. That is Marian Stambaugh’s legacy of creativity.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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The Young Cellist’s Chair

cello, cellist

The Young Cellist’s Chair.

All the chairs on the stage were black, except for one. The pastel colors painted on the child’s white seat had caught my attention before the recital began. I wondered why this one chair was different. Once the cellists came on stage, I had my answer. A young girl, perhaps four-years-old, sat down matter-of-factly in the fancy chair, picked up her instrument and bow, and played as practiced.

“The Young Cellist’s Chair” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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That old house served us well

home, fall scene

That old house in the fall.

By Bruce Stambaugh

By the time you read this, my wife and I will be settling into our new old home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. We’re excited about the change as we enter the autumn of our lives.

We’ll do our best to keep in touch with our friends and relatives in Ohio and elsewhere. They have been the fibers that helped stitch our lives together.

Of course, we will miss our old home, too. It served us well for 38 years. That’s a long time by today’s standards where Americans move on average of 11 times.

When we bought our home in eastern Holmes County, it was as young in housing as we were in parenting. The house was unfinished and budding, like our two and four-year-olds. Neva and I had been married eight years.

That old house helped us raise our daughter and our son from toddlers into productive young adults. It served as ground zero for my amazing wife to hone her effusive hospitality skills.

Our former home holds more memories good and bad than I can recall. But it knows. The house’s walls harbor nearly four decades of our personal saga.

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The house has a beautiful setting that we so enjoyed. We had excellent views of our Amish country surroundings. We could see five miles north to Wayne County. To the east, explosive sunrises stirred our bodies and our souls into another day. To the west, sunsets often thrilled us far beyond their beauty. To the south, our road still looked like an Olympic ski slope as it curved up, then flattened out, and then quickly back down past our house.

The property itself was a sanctuary. People often complimented Neva on her annuals and perennials that kept the old place bathed in colors spring to late fall.

The many trees and shrubs I planted matured, providing habitats for wildlife I never could have imagined. The skunks and raccoons could have found other homes though. The many birds, however, were always welcome.

The old house endured many storms over all the seasons and years as Nature used her full arsenal. Deep snows, large hail, six different lightning strikes, damaging winds, earthquakes, and the severe ice storm of late December 2004 pounded away. They all altered the property but could not subdue it.

The most memorable events though weren’t earth shattering at all. They were the everyday, common occurrences. Crackling fires in the fireplace on a cold winter’s night; sleepovers; the productive, magical hum of Neva’s sewing machine; both planned and impromptu visits from friends, neighbors, and church youth groups, and the whoosh of chimney swifts that rattled the glass fireplace doors only begin the recollections.

None of those, however, can hold a candle to the memories of the grandkids. They were mesmerized by the clop, clop, clop of horse and buggies trotting by, rosy-cheeked from snowball fights and sled rides, giddy with wonder and excitement on Christmas morning.

family fun, roasting hotdogs, roasting marshmellos

Hotdog roast.

After all, the grandchildren are the main reason we uprooted ourselves from all that we have been. They are the reason we will settle into new routines, new roles, and our new home in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley.

Time is short. Neva and I have chosen to fill our elder days with the activities, joys, and disappointments, competitions and achievements of our progeny’s children.

Those will be the sights and sounds, fragrances and satisfactions of all our days ahead, however many or few they may be. Perhaps those memories will be just as sweet, if not sweeter than those generated by that old Holmes County house we called home.

They will not, they cannot replace them.

We wish the new owners well and hope their memories are as fruitful, meaningful, and lasting as ours.

Snow, Ohio

Our old house.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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A Final Ohio Sunset

Ohio's Amish country, sunset over Amish farm

Last Ohio sunset.

I can sometimes read too much into a naturally occurring phenomenon. I think that’s the romanticist coming out in me. Nevertheless, while visiting an Amish family who had invited us for dinner before we left for life in Virginia, I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful sunset. I stepped outside and captured this photo, our last blazing sunset as Ohio residents. I took it as a warm farewell for us.

“A Final Ohio Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Saying both thank you and goodbye

trees in blossom, spring in Ohio

Goodbye blooms.

By Bruce Stambaugh

In a couple of days, the moving truck will arrive. Men I’ve never met will pack our selected belongings into the straight bed of a box truck. A couple of days later, they’ll reverse the process, and we’ll begin life anew in our new home in Virginia.

I have looked forward to this event. I have dreaded this event. I am excited to be close to our daughter and her family. I’m sad that we’ll be six hours away from our son and other family members along with a lengthy list of lifetime friends.

That’s the dichotomy of uprooting yourself after spending all of your quality years in one geographic location. A time to dance and a time to refrain from dancing as the scripture goes.

We recognized that this major decision came with both good and bad consequences. We will spend time with our grandchildren, watch them grow from adolescence into young adults, the good Lord willing.

We’ll also help out our daughter and her husband with their hectic work and household agenda. The grandkids’ and their parent’s schedules aren’t mutually exclusive of course.

We recognize, too, the friends, neighbors, and family we leave behind, the relationships that will forever change by not being able to commune together regularly. We will dearly miss that.

We have lots of folks to thank for their faithful support for us as we worked in the local public schools and the various community service endeavors in which we participated. We know we gained far more than we were able to give.

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Church, school, fire department and rescue squad, township, thrift store, friendships, neighborhood and family activities and gatherings all pieced together the crazy quilt that formed our active lives. We can never repay them all for the kindness, patience, acceptance, and including us in their lives.

We anticipate this transplanting will take some time for our roots to take hold in our new community endeavors. Virginia friends and new acquaintances have already begun to make us feel welcomed, and we haven’t even moved yet. That’s southern hospitality for you.

I’ll continue to write and share what I encounter as we settle in, explore our new surroundings, meet new folks, and experience all that is in store for us. My words just may develop a southern accent.

Friends and family have given us an extended send-off. These last few days have been bittersweet. We have been showered with hugs and kisses, tears and celebratory well-wishes. The fellowship we have experienced added spice to the already delicious meals we’ve shared with dear friends and relatives. Close neighbors even held a carry-in and gave us an unexpected monetary gift as goodbye presents.

Even the vegetation around our house blossomed a flowery finale for us. The flowering trees, shrubs, and plants bloomed the best and brightest that they have in our 38 years of living here. As the daffodils faded, the dogwoods and lilacs burst with vibrancy. Their fragrances were intoxicating. It was as if they had conspired to ensure us a very colorful goodbye.

The backyard birds joined the party, too. The Red-headed Woodpecker, White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, the Pileated Woodpeckers, and even the resident Bald Eagles took turns bidding us an avian adieu.

Thanks to each one of you for all of your help along the way, and for your blessings as we begin this next phase of our lives. I’ll say goodbye, but not farewell. That has too much of a final ring to it.

I’ll see ya’ll later.

blooming dogwoods

Colorful sendoff.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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David and Goliath

downy woodpecker, pileated woodpecker

David and Goliath.

The Pileated Woodpecker, 17 inches top to tail tip, is Ohio’s largest woodpecker. Conversely, the Downy Woodpecker is Ohio’s smallest at a mere 6.5 inches long.* The two are seldom seen together. If they happen to arrive in the same area, the Downy quickly knows its place. It is no physical match for the impressive Piliated.

I recently was watching and photographing a male Pileated Woodpecker feed on the peanut butter suet feeder that hangs in my backyard. Imagine my surprise when a male Downy Woodpecker suddenly dropped onto the feeder and seemingly challenged its mega-sized cousin. It was both a once-in-a-lifetime moment and a David vs. Goliath situation. I was extremely fortunate to capture this brief confrontation before the Downy decided to wait its turn.

“David and Goliath” is my Photo of the Week.

*Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, Kenn Kaufman, p. 214 & p. 218.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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