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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I sold my first flowers at the age of six. Mom continued teaching me about different types and styles of arrangements and floral design, and I kept learning. One day I decided I would go it alone without Mom’s help. I set out to make an arrangement by first selecting a green, rectangular, ceramic container, and then the artificial flowers and filler flowers that I would need. First, I cut a piece of green Styrofoam to fit my container, securing it to the bottom using cling (that sticky stuff I had seen Mom use). Next, I carefully covered the Styrofoam with green moss, ensuring that none of the foam was visible. Mechanics are very important in floral design. Mom used to say that it was like building a house. You had to have a good solid foundation upon which to build or the arrangement could fall apart, and that would reflect poorly upon Cook Floral and your design ability. So now I had a good foundation which was properly concealed, so I made ready to set about the task of arranging my flowers. I wanted to do something a little different than I had been doing (which up to this point had been primarily small fresh flower arrangements), so I decided to try designing this arrangement in a Hogarth curve (a swept down, smooth, flowing S shape) which I had watched Mom design several times. I tried to do everything the same way I had seen Mom do it. It was the sixties, so lots of designs used artificial flowers, and the Hogarth would have typically been made with them as well. Each stem had to have a steel pick (a thin, sharp, serrated steel blade, wrapped around the stem by means of a special mechanical device know as - - you guessed it - - a pick machine) attached to the end of the stem, then be wrapped with green florists’ tape, to hide the mechanics before inserting them deeply into the Styrofoam, ensuring that it wouldn’t easily come out of the arrangement. After having completed this process for each stem, my design was complete. Mom hadn’t taught me anything about pricing yet, so I devised my own pricing method based on my own high opinion of my completed design, and so I priced it for probably three times what my mom would have sold it for! After I tagged it, I carried it over to the front display window and selected the best location for maximum exposure, moved what Mom had sitting there, and substituted my own arrangement in its place.

Imagine Mom’s surprise when a few days later she was waiting on a customer when all of the sudden the woman gasped, saying, “This is exactly what I have been looking for to sit in my entry way!” When Mom saw that the woman had picked up my arrangement, and realized that she had not checked my work, she tried to steer her to a different arrangement. When the woman insisted that the arrangement was perfect, and exactly what she had been searching for Mom said, “I have to confess, my six year old son made that.” The woman told her she didn’t care who made it, that it was perfect and she would take it. Mom checked the arrangement to ensure it would remain intact, and told the customer that she would be able to sell her the arrangement for less than what was on the price tag (though I think the woman would have gladly paid my high price!). Later, when I came to the shop, Mom told me my arrangement had sold as she handed me the money. (As I recall, I think she paid me the full original selling price of the arrangement, and while that was by no means profitable for the business, she must have believed that paying me what I had asked for would encourage me to continue designing.) She was right!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Until now my entire life had been one long summer vacation, and continued to be throughout the summer of 64. Mom’s routine started early in the morning when she would get up at 5:00 am and fix my Dad’s breakfast before he went to work around six. I remember waking to the smell of fresh perked coffee (Mr. Coffee wasn’t around yet) bacon, eggs, and toast. Some mornings it would be sausage and biscuits or something else, but always up early fixing breakfast. After Dad left for work she would have time to herself before she had to get ready to go to work, usually around 8:00 am.

I was always an early riser, even at a young age and I would get up early, and watch cartoons, or Jack La Lanne and his two white German Shepherds, Happy and Lucky, or Uncle Willie and Roscoe on the Sleepy Jeffers Show. Most days I would go to the flower shop with Mom, and my entire day was one of fun filled exploration and adventure. I would wander up and down Washington Street, going in and out of any shop or business that caught my interest. I made friends quickly with the many people working downtown, and soon everyone knew me and I knew them.

I never wore shoes in the summer and some of the sidewalks on the side streets were uneven, thus resulting in me having stubbed toes much of the time. Mom always knew when I had snuck across the street and went in the pool hall, because without shoes my feet would be filthy black all the way up to my ankles. (This was always different than normal street dirt.) I also stepped on a lot of bees, or little pieces of glass that required her immediate attention to remove stingers, glass slivers, and such.

Summer mornings were a good time to go to the city park where there were kids’ programs. We played games, made crafts, had cookies and kool-aid, or climbed on the old silver WW II cannon that sat in the center of the park. (One of the first things I did after moving back to Ravenswood this past summer was visit the park where I used to play. I couldn’t resist climbing to the top of the cannon and leaning over to look inside the barrel once more. I swear I saw the very same rocks I dropped down there all those years ago.) When I got bored at the park I would wander over to the swimming pool and watch the lifeguards sweeping the pool, or watch Mr. Hupp give swimming lessons.

Lunch time was a good time to go back to the shop. Mom would give me money, and I was allowed to go out to a restaurant to have my lunch, usually hamburger and French fries. Two of my favorite restaurants in downtown Ravenswood in the 60s were George’s Restaurant on Washington Street and Hupps Restaurant on Walnut Street; both served great meals and both had hamburgers and fries, and the best fresh made pies.

The swimming pool in Ravenswood opened at 1:00 pm, and I would always try to be the first in line so that I could be the first to jump in. Mom bought a season pass so I could spend every possible minute in the pool, and I was a true water dog. 1964 was the first year I was allowed to go to the big pool as long as I stayed in the shallow end. (I found out later she had made arrangements with friends to watch over me.) Right away, I watched other kids swimming, and I just started doing what they were doing until I had taught myself how to swim. I was happy with that for a while, but soon wanted to be able to go into the deep end and jump off the diving board. Before being allowed to do so I was required to demonstrate my swimming ability to the lifeguard, which meant I had to swim across the pool and back without stopping. I tried a couple of times, but I would get too tired before I could make it all the way back across. Being determined, I kept practicing for several hours over the next couple of days until I finally did it. The next time I reported to the lifeguard (Andy Hupp) that I was ready to try again, I swam it successfully! Filled with a sense of accomplishment, I could finally go in the deep end and jump off the diving board (except that after having just passed the swimming test I was too tired, lacking any energy at all to swim for the rest of that day!) But just like with all the other days, I stuck around until the pool closed at 5:00 pm. Then I would either walk the three blocks back to the flower shop, or Mom would pick me up on her way home from work. Usually I’d walk and she would be just about ready to leave by the time I got there.

Small town living offered a safe environment in which to grow up. Unlike today, children had many freedoms and room to explore on their own. Even though I ran up and down the streets there were people watching out for me. Had I been getting into trouble or doing anything unsafe my mother would have been informed and I would have had to answer for my actions.

When I wasn’t out running all over the town, I would spend time at the flower shop. Many times I would sit on a stool at the end of Mom’s work table and watch her design flowers. I would ask all kinds of five year old questions like what she was doing when she was putting together a floral arrangement, why was she doing it that way, what was that sticky stuff (It was florists’ clay) she was using, or any other hundreds of questions. She always took the time to patiently answer all of my questions. I liked spending time watching her work, and I was interested in how she arranged the flowers. It looked like something I could do too. Mom would give me some flowers, a container, a piece of foam, and then point me to a place to work, allowing me to play with the flowers. Usually within about a half an hour I would take my completed arrangement to show her. She would look at it, and point out the things I needed to do, or things I had missed, and send me back to fix it. When I returned again she would almost always tell me what a good job I had done, and tell me that it was good enough to sell! This made me believe that I could not only accomplish meeting my mother’s standards, but it excited me to think I could make money doing it as well! She would tell me how much to put on the price tag, and then have me place it in the display cooler in the front of the shop. I don’t know if she ever really sold any of those first arrangements I made, and it doesn’t really matter, because now looking back on the events of that time and what I learned from Mom, I now understand that to her those arrangements would have been priceless.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Anna Lee Mullins was an extraordinary woman. I say that not because she was my mother, but I think anyone that knew her would agree with me completely. Her first priority in life was her love of God; she was a very devout Christian woman, and everything about her life reflected that. Her love of family and all that it entailed motivated her to make sure her every responsibility as mother, wife, caregiver, and homemaker was completed absolutely to the best of her ability. She could always look past people’s faults and negative traits and was able to see the good, believing that everyone had something worthwhile in them. (She always tried to teach this to her children and others.) She taught with love, whether teaching her children, an employee, or a Sunday school class; it was always done genuinely from her heart and soul. She believed in giving people the benefit of the doubt, second chances, forgiveness, and in being kind and fair. She taught me self respect and how to be kind to myself as well as to others, but at the same time to not allow people to take unfair advantage of me, and if I believed completely in something, that I had not only the right but an obligation to defend that position whole heartedly.

This arrangement of her owning her own business was working out very well for her. It provided her with an income while at the same time allowing her children freedom to come and go, or stay at the shop as long as they wanted to hang out, and she liked that. The flower shop was also a place where she could teach her three boys as well as give them a way to earn spending money. Mason, the oldest of the three, started working right away in the flower shop, continuing to work there until he graduated from high school and went away to college. There is no doubt that the work experience he gained in the family business better prepared him to land his first job out in the larger world.

Mom also wanted to help other young people in the community. Over the years the number of high school students that listed their first work experience as Cook Floral on job applications grew to be quite impressive. Many have never forgotten their early days or the things they learned during that time. People still make a point of telling me about their experiences at Cook Floral, or what they remember about my mother, or something she did that helped them later in life. For some it has been twenty or thirty years since they worked at the shop.

Ravenswood today is a very small town of around four thousand people, and was even smaller in 1965. Typical of a small town, people are friendly and almost always speak when passing each other, whether they know you or not. It’s just the small town way and pretty much the same yet today. Ravenswood was, and remains a place where people will go out of their way to help someone just because.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Preparations were in full swing to get the building ready for opening day, and everything was starting to take shape. The front windows were covered, as everything was being completed out of the public’s view. Before my father became an electrician he was a carpenter, and those skills were serving him well now. Besides his regular job, he was working many extra hours building design tables, display fixtures, and cold rooms that would later be converted into refrigerators. Mom stayed busy stocking the shelves with vases, wires, ribbons, and polyethylene (plastic) flowers. (Like carpeting, plastic flowers were a big hit in the sixties!) Her family sent boxes full of materials and non-perishable goods to help with the start up.

The local newspaper heard of my parents’ plans to open a new business, and so they wrote up a story. This was a big deal for a small town to be getting a new business. When the story published, the arrogant and pompous old man came to visit. He never apologized to my mother for talking down to her as he had; he was there to make her an offer. He proposed that together they form a partnership in which they would combine the family names for the new business, with my mother acting as the location manager. My mother’s answer to his proposal was swift and immediate. She grabbed a broom and chased him out the door and down the street, yelling at him never to come back!

With the hard work of my parents and help from my mother’s family, everything moved along according to schedule, and the doors were opened for business at the newest florist, Cook Floral, in Ravenswood, West Virginia just in time for Mother’s Day 1964. The new venture was very well received by the community, and support was better than anyone had even anticipated. Her next hurdle would be to become a member of FTD.

In November 1909, at a meeting held in Chicago, Illinois the ground work was laid for an organization of retail florists, which would become known as FTD. Most people may be familiar with their Mercury® Logo (first introduced in 1914), which is still in use today (changed from the original, though still featuring the god Mercury) and known around the world. The Florists’ Telegraph Delivery Association (as it was first known) was the first formal organization for retail florists, and gave them control over sending and receiving floral wire orders over a long distance. This early organization was a cooperative for the florists, and had strict standards and rules for its members. You could not become a member, nor retain membership if your business didn’t continually meet the expectations of the organization. This covered things like assuring the quality and freshness of the flowers as well as the timeliness of deliveries, staffing with qualified professional floral designers, and the handling of customer complaints to name but a very few. If you had the Mercury® logo on your business, it assured customers of higher standards, and became the symbol for quality that consumers shopping for flowers would seek out and depend on. Like so many other things that have changed over time, so has the significance of the Mercury® logo and what it represents. FTD is still a large organization in the business of selling flowers and floral products, but it is no longer cooperatively owned by its members, and their standards have become much less rigid, allowing them to compete with other companies vying for the same piece of the floral pie in the US.

In the sixties FTD was still cooperatively owned, and still enforced their strict standards. Cook Floral would be required to be in business for at least one year before they could even make an application to join. The local competitor, however, was a member, and was well known within the organization and around the state by other member florists. Cook Floral, which was also the name of the other family members’ shops were also well known within the organization, and throughout West Virginia, but Mom would still have to meet the requirements the same as anyone else.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In the spring of 1964 I was five years old, and would be starting first grade in the fall. I was the youngest of three children, all boys, and my mother was ready to return to the working world. Unlike today, most women did not work outside the home. My mother was one of six children, three boys and three girls. Their father passed away while my mother was a teenager. Although my grandmother received a pension from the railroad, it was necessary for her to work to keep up with the financial needs of the family. She owned and operated a restaurant in a small town in mountains of southern West Virginia. After my grandfather passed away, she expanded the restaurant into an adjoining building, where she operated a flower shop. I'm sure her exemplary hard work to support her family was a big influence on my mother’s own decision to work outside the home.

At that time there were no wholesale florists in West Virginia. All of the items they used in the flower business were grown themselves, collected from the wild, or manufactured by hand. Mom helped out by growing flowers and plants, collecting items from the mountains or making flowers from silk ribbon and other materials. There were also some items that were mail-ordered and shipped in.

Since I would be starting school in the fall, and she was ready to go back to work, it was only natural that she applied at the local florist for employment. The owner, a very successful, but arrogant and pompous old man, laughed at her and told her she did not know the first thing about the flower business and was not qualified to sweep the floors in his flower shop. She knew better, because she knew she had learned the business well, as had one of her brothers and a sister who both had opened flower shops and were operating them following the same successful footsteps of their mother.

My father was an electrician at a local manufacturing plant, and had recently started selling carpeting (really a big thing in the sixties) for all the new houses being built in the area. He had secured a building where he would be hosting a flooring show for prospective clients to see all the options available. After learning the outcome of my mother's interview, he scrapped the flooring business and instead encouraged her to open her own flower shop. So with the support of my father, and my mother’s florist family, they all set to work preparing the building for the new florist in town. This would be better for my mother anyway, since having her own business allowed her the freedom to have her children with her while she worked without creating a conflict, which she never would have been able to do working for someone else. Who could have foreseen that this would also be the beginnings of my own lifelong career?