30 Days of Thanks: Thanksgiving without Mel

Mel ReynoldsToday is a melancholy day for me. Yes, on this Thanksgiving Day, I’m grateful for so much – family, friends, faith, health, career – all the usual blessings we tend to reflect upon this time of year.

But Thanksgiving Day is different this year, and probably will be for years to come.

You see, since I met my wife nearly 20 years ago, I’ve spent most Thanksgivings with her family, usually at her aunt and uncle’s home in northeast Iowa. And each visit was made memorable by my wife’s grandfather, Mel.

I experienced Mel fully each Thanksgiving Day, usually through a barrage of questions and curiosity. That was his thing. The conversations helped Mel connect people through relationships he’d forged in life.

Despite his small stature and quiet presence, Mel built big things. From the ground up, he constructed the story-and-a-half house he shared with his wife of more than 60 years. Mel made his living with his hands, too, most notably as a carpenter and handyman for one of Dubuque, Iowa’s largest department stores.

Mel created with his heart, too, forging countless friendships that lasted decades, often through unselfish acts of kindness, like ringing bells for the Salvation Army, or volunteering at his local church.

His favorite questions started with, “Do you know so-and-so?” Or, “Have you ever met this person?” – Mel's sparkly blue eyes making him impossible to resist. It wasn’t that he was necessarily interested in my answers as much as he was in using my reactions to learn more about me – or anyone else he approached – during those November gatherings.      

For an introvert like me, the conversations were uncomfortable at first. But after a few visits, it was old hat, and we would play the “do you know?” game, all the while getting to know each other better.

30 Days of Thanks - TodaySadly, Mel passed away in September after complications from a stroke. He was 91, and is dearly missed on this Thanksgiving Day by those who got to know him best.   

I’ll miss those blue eyes, which would draw you into conversation and force your guard down.  

I’ll miss trying to connect the people in our lives, and the opportunity to learn more about each other along the way.

I’ll miss visiting Mel, and spending time in his neat-as-a-pin home he built with his hands some 70 years ago. The house is still there – nestled among a sprawling university campus – but it’s not a home without Mel.

Yes, I’m thankful for the time I knew Mel and the conversations we had, but melancholy about having to spend today without his presence – and the opportunity to know him better.

Rest in peace, Grandpa Mel.

30 Days of Thanks: Cooking up Grand Memories

30 Days of Thanks: GrandparentsIt didn’t matter what day of the week it was - that cozy little kitchen always smelled heavenly.

My grandma – or ‘Gram’ as I lovingly remember her, was always cooking when I came to visit her tiny house on Pacific Street. Some days she would be standing over the stove flipping fragrant cinnamon-spiced crepes (nicknamed “penny rolls”), and other times I’d find her cranking an apple peeler to make homemade applesauce – the waxy peels falling to the floor with a light ‘thunk’.

Gram had a wonderful way of captivating you with whatever project she was working on when you arrived. Greeting you with a hug so tight you could barely breathe, she would waste no time involving you in her latest endeavor.

“Go out to the garden and cut me some chives for the soup” she would say in her no-nonsense voice, handing me pair of scissors, and shooing me outdoors as soon as I set my suitcase down.

Gram taught me so many things over the years – but I’m most grateful for our time spent cooking together.

Besides sharing ways to make my own kitchen smell irresistible, she helped me discover the simple joy of creating something with your own two hands. And today, when I pull out recipe cards with her wobbly cursive handwriting, I’m grateful for the sweet memories that come flooding back with each line.

Thank you, Gram. I miss you.

What are your fondest memories of a special grandparent? What made them grand?

30 Days of Thanks American Family InsuranceEditor's note: In the pursuit of dreams, take time to thank those who have helped you along the way. Each day during November, American Family Insurance will share ideas for showing appreciation for the people, things and events in our lives. We hope you use these 30 Days of Thanks as an opportunity to share your gratitude -- or even just take a few moments each day to reflect on everything good in your life. Visit us on Facebook during November for inspiration and ideas as we celebrate 30 Days of Thanks. 

Scoopin’ Loops for a good cause

American Family Insurance employees volunteer at Second Harvest Foodbank.On Sept. 5, I participated in American Family’s Days of Caring by volunteering at the Second Harvest Foodbank in Madison, Wis. That afternoon, about 20 other coworkers and I packaged what seemed like thousands of pounds of generic Fruit Loops to be distributed to the hungry in Southwest Wisconsin.

Second Harvest Foodbank, southwestern Wisconsin’s largest hunger-relief organization, is a nonprofit organization committed to ending hunger in 16 southwestern Wisconsin counties through community partnerships. It serves nearly 141,000 people each year; 43 percent of whom are children.

From July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013, Second Harvest - together with its more than 225 partner agencies and programs - provided 12.6 million meals to those facing hunger. Second Harvest is part of Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity with 202 member food banks across the nation.

Second Harvest has the volunteer packaging program down to a science. It provided hair nets, aprons and gloves among five tables.  Each table had its own scale, scoop and automatic bag tie apparatus into which you fed the end of the bag once it was filled with cereal. Given the competitive nature of those in the legal profession, it soon became a race to see which table could fill bags the fastest.

Our table won.

Second Harvest Foodbank logoAfter just our short stint at scoopin’ loops, our upper arms and feet were a little sore the next day. It made us appreciate the comfortable office chairs at American Family. It also gave us a great opportunity to get to know people we see every day, but don’t have a chance to connect with.

You don’t really know someone until you’re up to your armpits in cereal with them…

At the end of our shift, we talked to another group that had just finished packaging vegetables. They shared that they volunteer once a week for several hours. That sort of dedication is impressive, but not hard to understand after you experience first-hand such fun while at the same time doing something that will help so many people.    

Editor’s note: Want to help? American Family Insurance Madison, Wis., offices will be collecting food and cash donations for the Share Your Holidays food drive to benefit the Second Harvest Food Bank. Donation bins are available through Dec. 9 at our Madison offices for anyone to drop off non-perishable food items. There are also containers for cash donations. Or, you can visit the Feeding America website to find local food banks near you. 

'You're my hero'

Washington, Illinois tornado damageLast week, a customer called me a hero. Tonight, I’ll talk to someone else who considers me a hero.

I'm working a catastrophe event in central Illinois, where an extremely powerful tornado smashed through Washington and nearby communities the morning of Nov. 17. You may have seen stories in the news as it drew national and international attention.

I started out in American Family's Kansas City property claims office in 2008. In the next few years, I assisted at a number of catastrophe responses, and this sort of work appealed to me for various reasons.

For one thing, I like to see different parts of the country. I also like to meet people. And the team atmosphere is very strong – if I need information or the benefit of someone else’s perspective, I’m comfortable calling anyone on the team.

So, in 2011 I successfully applied for a job with the field catastrophe team. I love my job! You might think it would be depressing to go from one disaster to the next, but it’s quite the opposite. I’m a people person. Being able to meet someone face-to-face, and to offer comfort (or even a hug, if it’s needed) gives me a good feeling.

I arrived in Washington on Monday, Nov. 18, the day after the storm. It’s an incredible scene, when an entire community is challenged like this. You have people walking up and down the street, asking their neighbors or total strangers if they need a hand. Churches and other volunteer groups work long hours providing food, water and other needed supplies. There’s just this positive vibe all around you, as the community joins hands in the healing process.

I met with a customer in East Peoria, Ill., Wednesday, just down the road from Washington. About one-third of her home’s roof was torn off, and the inside was littered with drywall and insulation. Like many of us would be after experiencing such trauma, she was devastated and had trouble communicating with me.

We talked, we laughed, we hugged. As our customer started to open up a bit more, she shared that she had a hard time envisioning how her life would ever be the same again. And with the holidays just around the corner, those feelings of despair and helplessness were only magnified.

I was able to comfort her and help her to understand and believe that everything will come back together for her again. The roof will be rebuilt and the interior will be restored. Won’t be in time for Thanksgiving, but the contractor’s timeline may allow for Christmas at home.

“You’re my hero!” she exclaimed.

And that’s what I do for a living. That’s how I support my family, that’s what makes me feel like this is the right job for me. It looks like we’ll be here through the Thanksgiving holiday, teaming with the local and field claim units to get our customers back on their feet again.

The tough part is calling home to Kansas City every night. My daughter, Zayla, 7, demands to know, “When are you coming home, Mama?” My son, Zion, is only 3, and he’s just happy to hear my voice.

Someday soon, I will walk through that door, and get the chance to be a face-to-face mom again. That’s when I’ll really be a hero.

30 Days of Thanks: A life filled with teachers

30 Days of Thanks: TeachersI went through the gauntlet of third grade 18 years ago, but have yet to escape the happenings of a third grade classroom.

See, I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with a mother, Deb, who has spent her entire adult life molding the lives of third graders (not to mention my grandma and several aunts and uncles who also spent their working lives in classrooms).

Day in and day out, through good days and bad, my mom heads into her classroom with a purpose. She views each day as an opportunity to leave a mark on a young mind. That’s something she won’t allow herself to take for granted because she knows how powerful her job is and can be.

That’s how she’s operated for well over 30 years.

But those who didn’t see her outside of the classroom setting didn’t know her normal day of teaching wasn’t over when she left the building each day. Not even close.

When she got home, even after the worst days, she spent time teaching me and my younger sister. There were nights around the kitchen table when my sister and I would work on homework while my mom graded papers or updated lesson plans. If we had questions, guess who was always there with an answer?

One of the coolest times of my life was when my reading teacher was my mom. I spent 45 minutes in her classroom each day. What I remember most poignantly was how she treated me exactly as she treated the other 20-25 kids in the class.

I was at school to learn. When I was home I could be the teacher’s pet.

I’ve always been grateful for those 45 minutes in her classroom. Seeing my mom do what she loves and do it well molded the way I approached school for the rest of my academic career.

She taught me discipline, respect and compassion. She taught me never to give up on something. She taught me I had what it takes to do whatever I wanted to in life, and that I should never settle for anything less – all things I carry forward to this day.

When I found out I was rejected from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a senior in high school, I felt entirely dejected. Getting that note from the only school I ever wanted to attend could have taken a nasty toll on my confidence.

But without missing a beat, my mom was there to pick me up. She was there to teach me nothing comes easy in life, but everything is possible if you work hard and stay smart. After one year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I wound up at UW-Madison, where I graduated with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2009.

Guess who I said thanks to immediately after the ceremony was over?  

What’s also neat is I’m soon to be married to a first-grade teacher, who I’ve already seen impact the lives of many – both educationally and socially – in her two-and-a-half years in a classroom. Though we don’t have any children, I know for a fact there will be plenty of nights around the kitchen table where we all work on homework and educate one another, should that time come.

For that, I’m thankful the most influential teachers in my life were – and continue to be – at my disposal 24/7.

What teachers had the most affect on your life? 

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