Cow Crafting

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Married to a veterinarian for almost 54 years, I’ve heard about, witnessed, even occasionally helped with hundreds of calvings. As a child, on occasion, I knew the feel of a cow’s side against my forehead while milking, the sound of the milk hitting the bottom of the bucket. I’ve wheedled cows into a stable, hunted them when they were lost, and coaxed a calf to suck milk in a bucket with my fingers. I even wrote a children’s book about “One Brown Cow,” a lonely cow who had been willed her pasture for life. But this week for the first time my veterinarian and I completed the crafting of a life size cow for our manger scene.

We created the first figures for our manger scene (with the help of Fred and Linda Bearden) about ten years ago: Joseph, Mary, the Baby Jesus, and three sheep. Then, after several years we made a docile gray donkey. Now, finally, we have a cow.

After we stenciled the outer pattern onto a sheet of ply board, Charles began the tedious job of cutting using a jigsaw. My job was to hold the extraneous pieces of wood as they were cut loose. We were so excited to see the cow take shape.

Time passed before we could start getting the cow ready to paint. We used a brown as near to that suggested by the pattern as we could find. It doesn’t quite look like any cow I’ve ever seen! More time passed before we started stenciling the features onto the “old” girl. Then, finally, this week, we actually painted eyes, ears, nose, tail and demarcations to show her bone structure, her shape.

Neither of us is an artist, a fact anyone will know when looking at our creations. They are crudely painted but with much love which, the Bible says, covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8). But Charles does know the anatomy of a cow. He should after having spent his life tending to them, operating on them, chasing them down, inoculating them and even performing necropsies to determine their cause of death. So, though the pattern was not always accurate, Charles could fill in the “gaps” with his knowledge of the shape of bones, where this line should end, where another would help to give more substance to our cow. Neither of us is happy with the ears, partly because of that awful Pepto Bismol pink on the inner ear. But, somehow, the overall appearance is such that we can almost imagine this cow mooing on the night Jesus was born.

The art in my little cow book is referred to as “whimsical art.” Maybe what we’ve done on this poor cow is akin to that cartoonish creativity. (My apologies to all artists.)

Anyway, we’ve decided she will “do.” She doesn’t have to give milk, mother a calf, browse a pasture, chew the cud, or anything strenuous. Her only job is to be part of a scene that reminds folks of that holy night in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.

 

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Persimmon Time

Persimmons have a color all their own. Under their scalloped black hats is a pinkish orange with pale blue gray shadows.  This time of year you can see them still clinging to wispy branches after leaves have fallen, like tiny bright birds ready for flight.

There was a persimmon tree near the porch of the cottage where my parents set up housekeeping.

When they built their new stone house at the top of the hill, Mom and Dad rented the cottage to summer vacationers or used it for a guest house. We kids found it a grand place to play when it was unoccupied. A trunk full of clothes from the 1890s provided costumes for our many impromptu plays. A spinning wheel seemed right ready to go to work if we’d had our great grandmother’s skills and materials. And, to make the place chillingly scary, there were two six foot rattlesnake skins my father had kept from his days homesteading on Cape Canaveral. And, joy of joys, in October the persimmons began to fall giving us wonderful refreshment.

There weren’t any low limbs on the tree and it was a hard one to climb so we had to wait for the fruit to fall. When a persimmon plunked into the grass it split in tiny cracks giving one a peek of the sweet orangey inside. If it didn’t squish down juicily it probably wasn’t ripe and if a sibling teased you into biting into it your mouth would go into a torture twist for five minutes. The juicy ones, though, were incredibly sweet and delicious. You had to be on the lookout for those plops or they would be attacked by bees and ants before you could claim them.

My mother made persimmon pudding if we managed to take her enough fruit both from that tree and another one in the meadow. Her pudding was absolutely heavenly, better than sweet potato casserole. Sometimes the boys brought a possum instead of a bucket of persimmons. The possums liked that fruit too, enough that they’d risk being treed by boys and dogs on a moonlit night.

Years later, after Charles and I moved to South Georgia, I met another persimmon tree. It grew in a corner of the pasture behind Mama and Papa Graham’s house. I was so thrilled to find it, like an old friend in a far country. But I never really captured enough fruit to do any more than snack on one or two. I couldn’t set a watch on the tree and the pasture grass was not particularly clean.

Yes, you can buy persimmons at the market. They will be much bigger than the wild ones, maybe almost as big as a tennis ball instead of barely ping pong ball size. They will not be soft or quite so full of seeds but will be quite firm. The color will be that same indescribably orangey pink but without the pale blue gray shadows. And the taste? The market persimmons are good but if you’ve ever eaten the wild ones you will be disappointed in those you buy.

A year or two ago our friends Johnny and Susan Hancock brought us persimmons from their tree. They were large and sweet, almost as good as the little wild ones from the tree beside the cottage, and I enjoyed them so much. The taste reminded me of those days when my siblings and I vied to see who would get each persimmon that fell. In addition to savoring the bit of sweet fruit, we also enjoyed seeing how far we could spit the seeds.

As October turns into November and the fields are white with cotton; as the sweetgums grow bright and goldenrods fade beside the fences; as you drive across the countryside enjoying the autumn scenes, look for a persimmon tree growing at the edge of a pasture. The leaves will have fallen, leaving exposed the tiny orangey pink fruits ready to plop into the grass–unless a hungry possum gets them first. Do the possums’ mouths go into a torture twist if they eat persimmons before they’re ripe?

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work. Psalm 104:13

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One Gray Day on the Seashore

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October is one of our favorite times to enjoy the beach. There’s something restorative, healing, and inspirational about simply being at the seashore. We’re not sunbathers so an overcast day was a blessing to us. One day we rented three chairs and established our home base from which we could take walks, wade in the edge of the lacy waves, and hunt for the seashell that could not be left behind.

We watched families having a good time digging in the sand, flying a kite, taking a few daring swims in the cool water. There were walkers who were intent on exercise and strollers out to absorb the majesty and greatness of the ocean. Some of the walkers had ear bauds and I guess were enjoying their music more than hearing the rhythms of the sea. Maybe they lived nearby in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and were so used to the sand and the sea that it would be boring to walk without some entertainment. I can’t imagine that!

Walkers with dogs strolled or ran by. It’s always interesting to see how owners and dogs have similarities. For instance, a girl with long swinging blonde hair was accompanied by a fluffy haired golden retriever, a large muscular man kept pace with a hefty bulldog. But then there were the unmatched owners and dogs eliciting a giggle from one or other of us (after they passed, of course!). Those would be a giant guy with macho tank top trying o keep up with a dainty teacup poodle or a gray haired petite lady running to stay in step with a St. Bernard, her hand at waist level lightly touching his back as they went.

Since we were so interested in the people who walked and played on the beach, I can only think that others might have watched us at times. Here was Charles fully clad in long pants and button collar shirt taking time to do some crazy form of two-step and bow low as we passed a group of beach sitters. Here I came barefoot and in my swimsuit (a very decent one!) plodding along and using my trusty walking cane to dislodge seashells I might want to claim. And thirdly, Charles’ sister Revonda walked gracefully along in her suit and bare feet. Usually she was in front taking in the whole scene, hunting shells, and feeling the ocean breeze in her beautiful silvery hair.

We were all three reading when Charles got up to take one of his frequent strolls down the beach. When he appeared again he was carrying a bag from which he pulled three orders of hot crisp nachos and cheese. Nothing ever tasted any better than that treat on the beach! We watched the waves roll in as we munched and refrained from feeding seagulls that came close to eye us with jealousy.

There weren’t many children around that day. It wasn’t a school holiday for most. But the ones who were there were certainly having a good time. One father with two or three children made a sand monster so real it almost took off towards the water. That family reminded me of our Will who has always taken opportunities to build forts and castles with his children. Then there was a family flying a kite, members taking turns being the kite flyer and retriever when it plummeted sandward. One group built a small volcano-looking production and left it with a shell on top like a cap. We admired it since it was right in front of us, between us and the sea. The funny thing about that volcano was that a perky little Jack Russell came along and hoisted his leg, carefully marking that very sculpture, then frisked on down the beach behind his owner. Oh, the brevity of success!

I finally found the shell for the day, a perfectly formed shell with ridges on the outside, a pinkish gray interior. It was rough around the edges from its terrible tumble in the sea, from grating across sand and maybe being tossed in a storm. It probably could hold about one fourth cup of water. It easily fits in my hand where I can rub it and feel a connection somehow to the vastness of the ocean and to the Creator Who made the sea and the tiny creatures.

Scenes to remember from our gray day on the beach: blue-gray water disturbed by zillions of whitecaps and stretching all the way to a pearl gray sky; boats of various descriptions plying their way across the whitecaps; fishermen with poles secured upright as they sat back smoking while they waited for the lines to go taut; a mama with two small children introducing them to the water; a brave swimmer striking out as if to reach Ireland but heading ashore in five minutes; great waves forever rolling in, splashing white on the shore and sucking the sand as they simmered down in time for the next one to crash; the pearly smooth wet surface of sand reflecting the sky as a wave recedes; the expanse of beach between the waves and the dunes held secure by the gentle strength of sea oats.

As we enjoyed our day on the beach I kept thinking of lines from Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold”: Roll on, thou deep blue ocean roll. Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain; Man marks the shore with ruin, his control stops with the shore.

Unfortunately, man is now marking the ocean with plastic and oil. But, ultimately, God will make it all new.

As we gathered our things and headed back to our rooms, I looked once more across the sea. The sun was trying to break through the clouds making a bright path of light across the water.

 

 

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Grandma’s Biscuit Pan

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Grandma’s Biscuit Pan

It’s amazing how inanimate objects can take on life as you remember who used them before, who gave them to you, their storied background.  I’m not talking about what would be considered heirlooms. For instance, Grandma’s biscuit mixing pan.

It’s just a simple aluminum pan with a zillion crinkles as if it’s been through a few battles. The crinkles remind me of sweet Grandma Sue Mote’s softly wrinkled face. She was my husband’s grandmother. I didn’t know her until I became part of his family and, by then, Grandma’s home was a gathering place for her six children and dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren. I only remember seeing her use this little pan a time or two but I can imagine her now pinching a biscuit size bit of dough from this pan, patting it out in her hand and adding it to others ready to bake.

When Grandma died and her girls distributed her things, I was very honored to receive the biscuit pan. It brings back memories of her simple kitchen, her hand sewn curtains and aprons, the smell of chicken and dumplings on the stove, the happy crowd of cousins that spilled out into her carport and the yard. She was never prouder than when everyone came for her birthday or at Christmas.

I admit I no longer use this little pan to mix biscuit dough in, even when I rarely make biscuits. But I do use it for mealing a mess of catfish to fry or I slice okra into it. And when I do, I remember Grandma Sue, her sweet smile, her perfectly white hair and her joy in simple pleasures like cooking for her family.

Then there are those knives with a history. You probably have some like that too. For instance, the shiny little paring knife my mother gave me when she visited one time. She sat down to cut apples for me and was very displeased with the knife I produced for her to use. Later in the day she told me we had to go to the store and, once there, she chose this sharp dependable paring knife that, after thirty years, is still doing its job. “Every cook has to have a good knife,” she said.

Another knife is known by the whole family as “the good knife.” It is a chunky big wooden handled knife which keeps a good edge, and is just right for halving a head of cabbage or carving a roasted turkey. I don’t usually tell anyone how we acquired this knife. They might think it could never have been sterilized enough to forget its first life. But it was my husband’s necropsy knife when he was in veterinary school. Yes, it cut up some pretty gross stuff, I know. It was his own personal necropsy knife purchased at a dear price. His name is etched into the blade. That’s how we’ve found it numerous times after it was lost at the church, on a fishing trip, at family gatherings. When cutting a watermelon or slicing ham, that is the knife of choice.

But I have a favorite new knife as well. My sister Suzanne and her husband Bill gave me a really sweet little paring knife bought in Amish country. It will peel, slice, chop, shred just about anything. I treasure it and keep it in its very own slot.

One of my favorite things is an oblong shallow wooden bowl used by my  mother. Somehow, out of a family of ten, I became the new owner. It’s too cracked and worn now for me to use but I can enjoy it displaying decorative fruit or other pretty things. I remember Mamma chopping cabbage for kraut in it (no wonder it’s so scarred!), mixing bread, or making potato salad. I can almost taste the bread she cooked on a flat griddle on her woodburning stove. That flat bread was a standby for her when the day suddenly arrived at suppertime and she had so many mouths to feed quickly. And oh, how good, slathered with her freshly churned butter!

I have a cooking fork acquired from a sister-in-law’s things, a wonderful long heavy stainless steel spoon perfect for stirring jelly given to me by my daughter Julie for Christmas one year, an ice cream scoop that is the best, given to me by my son Will and his wife Christi. A scratched pitiful looking cutting board reminds me of when we first moved to Cairo and the Welcome Wagon lady came calling. She was as friendly as her title indicated and she gave us a bag of items from downtown merchants. This cutting board from Wight Hardware ( a store long since gone) has been so serviceable and has long outlasted all the other gifts.

These are not the things I’d grab if the house were burning down. I’d grab my Bible and my purse. But I sure would miss these simple handy time-proven objects that remind me of many dear folk.

 

 

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Little Drummer Lady

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A window at North Myrtle Beach First Baptist Church

While on vacation last week we visited First Baptist Church, North Myrtle Beach. Visiting churches in other towns, other states, other countries not only is an opportunity to worship the Lord, but also is a great way to identify with the people in that locale. It is always interesting, whether we’re startled by the crowing of a rooster in Kauai at the very point of Peter’s denial, or hearing a sermon in two languages in Aruba, or being part of Youth Sunday in Bromley, England.

We (Charles, Revonda, and I) had found this church while heading north to eat seafood in Calabash, North Carolina. It looked like a lively church so we checked their schedule and made plans to be there on Sunday morning.

The church was warm and welcoming. We perceived there were many other guests that morning and wondered if it were usually like that. In fact, we found ourselves welcoming other guests to church!

The congregation grew and grew, several being seated by an usher who was a big jolly guy with a ready smile and handshake. I talked to a couple from Charlottesville, Virginia who, also, were there for the first time. Charles nudged me to notice a white headed lady who appeared to be preparing to play an organ. There was an air of excitement as members greeted each other and then a hush as the worship leader welcomed us and invited us to sing.

We were happily singing praises when I looked over at the “organist” and realized she wasn’t playing an organ at all. She was playing timpani drums! She was a dainty little lady and her hands moved with such grace from one drum to another with what seemed musical accuracy, each beat right on time. Once having discovered her, I could hardly keep my eyes off her. Her hair was white as a fluffy cloud, her figure slim and erect and her drum beats so effective, like exclamation points in a script.

The sermon was very good, the music wonderful, and the members caring. There was even a lady at the door as we left passing out loaves of bread to first time attenders. But I was sorry I didn’t have a chance to speak to the little drummer lady. When we asked the worship leader about her, he smiled really big. “Oh, yes, would you believe she’s in her mid-eighties?”

I thought he would go on to say the lady had been playing drums all her life and just wouldn’t give up. But what he said was that she’d only been playing for three years. He said she decided to learn to play drums at about 83 and had perfected her skills so she could accompany the other instruments, a brass ensemble, in church.

We came away blessed by this outreaching church, an inspiring sermon, other friendly visitors, two loaves of bread, and the humble, graceful “little drummer lady.”

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Lizard Inspection

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William Jr, Mattie and Grandaddy studying a lizard

This tiny innocent lizard was climbing our porch screen on the inside. I like the little guys but greatly prefer they stay in their natural habitat–outside. I’ve been startled enough times by close encounters with the baby monsters. So I asked one of the boys to take him out for me. The above picture shows a bit of the ensuing scientific conversation featuring a seasoned granddaddy, a grandson with curiosity and readiness for a hands-on experience, and a granddaughter who, like me, would rather see than touch.

I have two or three lizard stories, as I’m sure you do also.

One day when I was a kid I was indisposed in the outdoor privy when, horror of horrors, I felt a live thing drop from the ceiling straight down my back on the inside of my shirt. It didn’t take long for me to shake the little green lizard out and my screams accompanied my action.

As a young mother I caught a movement one day in my peripheral vision. Upon investigation I discovered a four inch lizard scooting around on the floor in my baby’s nursery. I tried unsuccessfully to trap him in a corner with a broom. Then I resorted to what seemed to me a logical alternative. I called my husband at the Animal Hospital. He came and quickly caught and released the lizard to the outdoors. But he let me know without doubt that I should have been able to take care of that problem on my own. In time, my baby boy became my willing lizard catcher.

Our interesting century-old house in which we lived for forty-two years had less then snug windows so little lizards often squeezed their way in, then couldn’t, or wouldn’t, depart. One day my mother, who was visiting from north Georgia, sat with me having a cup of afternoon tea in our living room. We were deep in conversation when I saw Mamma’s face change expression. She was looking above my head as she asked very calmly, “What is that on the wall?” My mother had single handedly killed snakes with a hoe so she wasn’t afraid, just startled. William wasn’t around so I had to catch the little fellow in a towel and throw him out the front door, hoping I appeared brave to my mother.

When our daughter, Julie, was sixteen she had mononucleosis which turned into bronchitis which turned into pneumonia. Her illnesses were never short! This one went on for about six weeks. Her nice upstairs room with white wicker furniture, wallpaper featuring climbing roses, and pink dimity curtains became a prison. We’d worn out every quiet game, studied “Romeo and Juliet” trying to keep up with school work, and I’d prepared dozens of smoothies until they weren’t exciting anymore. We went to the doctor one day thinking that, since she seemed better, the doctor would say she could start getting out. Instead, the doctor said one more week of bed rest.

Leaving her in her room crying into her pillow, I went downstairs to conjure up something consoling. Standing at the kitchen window, I prayed for some comforting idea. My thoughts were interrupted by high squeals and giggles from Julie’s room. Dashing back upstairs, I found my daughter standing on her bed trying to capture a green lizard who scooted upside down across the white ceiling, his ET head swiveling when he paused to consider his next move. Julie found the greatest entertainment in watching me scramble to catch that little fellow and, afterwards, we both collapsed into giggles, our depression broken by one green lizard, a very quick answer to my prayer.

One of my favorite books to read with the great grands is “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” by Bill Staines. The recurring lines are “All God’s critters got a place in the choir; some sing low, some sing higher. Some sing out loud on the telephone wire. And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got.”

I’m not sure just how the little green lizards, even the ones with a red bubble under their chins, fit in the choir. Maybe it’s just the rhythm of their tails, or the amazing flexibility of their ET heads that places them. But I’m sure they do “got a place in the choir.”

 

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Christmas Carols in my Heart

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My little book is finally in my hands. I’m solicitous of her as if she were a child. I want her (or him!) to be a blessing wherever she goes, into whatever bookstore, into whatever home, into whosever hands. I want her, through the Lord’s power, to bring glory and honor to Him. I want him to make people happy. I want him to make people sing. I want her to inspire readers to write their own Christmas memories.

The blurb on the back cover reads:

“Carols line Silent Night, Joy to the World, and O Little Town of Bethlehem sing the truth of Christmas, that Jesus did come! But those carols can also remind us of the very taste, smell, and feel of Christmases past.

Brenda Knight Graham tells some of her stories of Christmas as a child, as a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, and invites you to write your own Christmas stories in this interactive Christmas journal. You will find yourself sometimes choked with emotion, other times erupting in laughter. But always the joy will shine through.

Christmas Carols in my Heart will help you find the Christmas carols in your heart.”

This little book has been twenty-one years in the making. It started as a grieving therapy after my mother died right before Christmas in 1997. Other projects and big chunks of Life have gone on since then too. Two other books were published, I had breast cancer and our family suffered the death of our daughter when she was only 42. But, no matter what else was going on, every January as I put away Christmas treasures, I’d sit down and write about another carol. After a few years my notebook was getting full and the thought occurred to me that just maybe these meandering stories might be a help to someone else, particularly if readers might be inspired to write some carol contemplations themselves.

It takes a lot of willpower and downright work to turn stories written in the passion of the moment into a readable manuscript. This book has been shelved in discouragement, brought back out of compulsion, cried over, bled over, and prayed over. At one time there were thirty carols in the book but after painful crafting it is now only a dozen. After a few near acceptances and several rejections, I did give up.

Last year on our annual Black Friday shopping jaunt Christi, my daughter-in-law, asked when my Christmas book would be published. “Oh, Honey, it’s not,” I answered. She looked at me with an expression near to shock. “But it has to be published!” Our conversation picked back up on the way to another store. “I’ll help you,” she said. “Okay,” I finally agreed, “but only if you illustrate it.”

Christi is a very busy attorney, not only at the law firm where she works, but also in  leadership positions in Birmingham legal circles. She is a wife and mother of three. I knew she didn’t have time for this project. I also knew her passion for art and had enjoyed several of her paintings. Christi said yes, and we were on another stretch of the journey with Christmas Carols in my Heart.

Seven of my books were published by traditional publishers who paid me royalties, rather than my paying them, who took all the risks, who made all the decisions. Should I do this? Self publish? I looked at a company or two and felt uneasy as if God were saying hold back. More prayers went up!

Harley Rollins, close family friend, got into the picture. He has spent his whole career providing Bibles and Christian books by the huge container load for third world country booksellers. He knows dozens of publishers on a first name basis. He recommended Dave Sheets and Danny Wright with Fitting Words.

In April Christmas Carols in my Heart was accepted. The excitement and frustrations of birthing a book kicked into high gear. All of a sudden those illustrations and final decisions about cover, format, everything, had to be done by the middle of June. Booksellers choose their Christmas books in June and July. The cover, at least, had to be ready for the distributor by June. Christi’s son, Thomas, was chosen to  play basketball with an international team in Spain. She burned midnight oil to finish her twelve chapter heading illustrations before leaving as his chaperone.

It was a crazy time leading to many funny little situations. There was the time when, on vacation (planned months in advance), we had to send some timely signed documents by Fed Ex to Danny. Our GPS took us right to the address in Petoskey, Michigan, only there was no Fed Ex there. We became acquainted with many more people in that strange town because of our quest for a Fed Ex. We finally found it tucked in the back of a huge office supply store.

I started to work responding to a copy editor’s critique only to learn that my “new” computer (six years old) was a dinosaur and my software was incompatible with Whitney Bak’s. The upshot of that was that not only did I have to purchase a new computer, painful to the pocketbook, but also I had to learn how to use it! Thanks to Amanda, my granddaughter, who answered so many of my dumb questions, I didn’t lose my hair! I longed for the times when an editor would return typewritten portions to me with red pencil critiquing for me to adjust and then stick back in the mailbox.

One of the very fun developments connected to this adventure was that we had a reunion with the Hughes family. Harry and his son Daniel were so generous in allowing me to tell briefly their amazing story.

At last, one day in late August, five boxes of books arrived at my back door. When I first picked up a copy of Christmas Carols in my Heart I hugged it to my chest. Then I really looked at it. It was beautiful, a truly lovely book. But it was so little. All those years of work for this slim little book? My husband, who’d endured much pain in the book’s development as he walked by my side, held me as I cried.

Then I realized again a very big truth. God can use small things. He can make much of our little. I don’t know all the ways He may use this slim volume of twelve Christmas carols, their stories and my contemplations. But I trust Him to follow the flight of this bright Christmas book and use it as a blessing.

You can order Christmas Carols in my Heart from Amazon or find it in your favorite bookstore, whether a small hometown store, or Barnes and Noble and Books’a’Million. Ask for it if you don’t see it. It should be in stores by the end of September. Please give it a review on Amazon.

I’d love to see you at one of my signings. Christi and I will both be at Rayann’s in Thomasville, Georgia, October 12, 11:00-1:00. I’ll be signing books at Books With Appeal in Cornelia, Georgia, November 1, 1:00-3:00, and at Center Drugs, Cairo, Georgia, November 8, 2:00-4:00.

If you’re aware of a venue where you think folks would enjoy a signing, please let me know at brendaknightgraham@gmail.com.

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