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Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Wilma Cale of Ooltewah shows off her breakaway boxes, a craft involving miniature scenes packed into cubes made of foam board and household items such as golf tees and thread spools.

Wilma Cale, 95, has designed more interiors than Rooms to Go.

Cale, a resident of Morning Pointe of Greenbriar Cove senior living center in Ooltewah, makes miniature rooms called breakaway boxes.

When folded up, the cube-shaped creations look like presents under a Christmas tree. But lift the lid off one and open it clam-shell style, and a room unfolds in front of your eyes.

In her collection there are boxes themed to holidays such as Christmas and Easter, boxes commemorating wedding anniversaries, boxes dedicated to animals (giraffes, anyone?), and boxes with nautical themes decorated with pastel-colored seashells that Cale found on a beach.

Making breakaway boxes is an obscure craft that Cale said she picked up starting in about 1980, when she and her husband, Bryan, would leave their home in Pennsylvania each winter and make their way to central Florida, joining the yearly migration of Northerners commonly referred to as snowbirds.

"I just fell in love with them, and I've been making them ever since," Cale said in an interview at Greenbriar Cove. "This lady from Ohio had a class there [in Lake Wales, Florida] and taught us how to make them."

Cale's boxes are sometimes displayed prominently outside the couple's apartment at Morning Pointe, and other residents often wander by to look.

"People will stand outside the room and gawk," said Michaela Rawdon, life enrichment director at Morning Pointe. "Miss Wilma is very creative."

"One lady said, 'Oh, I'd pay $100 for one of those,'" Cale said. "I've sold several."

Cale explains that she makes the frames of the boxes from foam board that she later covers with cloth, shelf lining paper and wallpaper. The interiors often are a combination of plastic miniatures that she buys at craft stores and homemade decorations made from common objects such as golf tees, thread spools and soft drink caps.

Cale says she's constantly on the lookout for random items that can be used in the breakaway boxes.

"I look at toys. I look at jewelry. I look at buttons. I look at anything small," she said.

The hard part is arranging the decorations so they don't rub together and fall apart when the boxes are folded. It's this intricate interior puzzle that creates the magic.

Cale says it takes up to two weeks to complete a breakaway box. She likes to take her time and let newly glued parts dry completely before moving on. She's in no hurry, she says.

"I just love to do this," Cale said. "I could do it 24 hours a day."

Rawdon said, "I can tell when she's been working on a box. She always looks a little brighter."

Cale says her favorite breakaway box has a mermaid theme, and it's ringed with some of her favorite seashells. At least one of the boxes she sold in Pennsylvania now resides in Germany, she said.

Her husband of 77 years, Bryan, makes breakaway boxes, too, but not as many as his wife.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about one in 1,000 marriages makes it to 70 years. There are no statistics kept for marriages that make it 80 years.

If Wilma and Bryan Cale make it to an 80th anniversary (they've been married 77 years now), it would call for the breakaway box to end all breakaway boxes.

An 80th anniversary is traditionally called "oak."

Let the wood collecting begin.

Life Stories is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPcolumnist.

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