"We're all just fragile threads, but what a tapestry we make." – Jerry Ellis

Archive for the ‘family history’ Category

Tweaked Traditions

 

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A meal out with my grandparents.  We were at Howard Johnson’s or Sambo’s (I think Howard Johnson’s bought out the Sambo’s chain at some point, but the decor was the same for a while).  We used to go to those two places a lot.  When you would clean your plate,  you would reveal a little picture on the plate, because at that time I needed that kind of incentive to eat everything.  

My family has had certain routines and traditions that go as far back as I can remember, many that began well before I was born and continued long after I became an adult out on my own.  One was my mom getting her hair done every Saturday at the hairdresser (washed, put in rollers and heatset under the dryer for 45 minutes), followed by lunch out with my dad.  As a kid, I was surprised when I learned that other moms actually only went to the salon to get a haircut once in a while and did their own hair every day.  I’d seen my grandma get her hair done this way (pinning it up with little clips and tissues and not sleeping with a pillow during the week to keep it nice) and so I assumed that’s how grown-up ladies managed their hair.  I was greatly relieved to find out as I grew older that the practice was a little old-fashioned and unusual, and I didn’t have to keep up that tradition.  I don’t think I could sit still 45 minutes under a dryer every week, and I know I couldn’t give up my pillow so my hair would look pretty.

Still, there have been other little routines that I grew up with that I cherish, and as an adult, even miss from when I was a kid. Sunday morning was spent going to church, a practice normally preceded by my brother and I trying to find ways to dawdle long enough to be too late for service so we could get out of going.  But after church, well, that was another story.  The reward for going to church was getting to go out to lunch, which was certainly a treat.  We were allowed to drink soda and could order what we wanted to eat, as long as it wasn’t too expensive.

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Often, my grandparents would go out to lunch with us.  I can tell this is a post-church picture, because my dad is wearing a suit…a leisure suit, but a suit nonetheless.  Gotta love those.

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As I became an adult with my own family, we continued this habit of lunch out after church, oftentimes eating with Dad and Mom.  It was a time to connect with them, catch up on what was going on with everyone, and just be a family.  As it always does, over time this became less and less frequent as life got busier with kids’ activities and commitments.  After we started attending a different church, and my aging parents didn’t get out to church as often, those Sunday afternoons with my parents became a thing of the past.

It was such a gradual thing I think I hardly noticed until I realized the little family tradition had ended.  That season of life, for all of us, and a humble routine that I took for granted, had come to a close.

A few days before Halloween last year, my mom suffered another round of strokes that left her very weak and unable to swallow.  She stayed in the hospital until the beginning of December, when they discharged her into a skilled nursing center.  I felt very comfortable with the place we picked for Mom, as my daughter, Erin, and I have volunteered for the last few years helping with our church’s service held there once a month.  It was always clean, the staff friendly and caring towards the residents, and not too far from our house.  But, still, it was placing her in the care of strangers, away from the familiarity of home, family and her beloved dog.

The first few weeks at the nursing home were a new experience for all of us, having never navigated that particular system before.  Admitted under her health insurance plan, she was given daily physical and speech therapy (that worked on her swallowing ability) for about three weeks.  Unfortunately, the health insurance company decided that there was unlikely to be any more progress to be had, and said she was ready to go home, even though her sole nutrition was through a feeding tube, she was unable to dress herself, walk or get out of bed unassisted (thus, use the restroom by herself without major help).  My father’s health is less than ideal—he has mobility issues and cannot get around by himself, either, so sending her home was not an option for us.  We made the decision to keep her there at the home, as a resident versus in a rehabilitation setting.  Anyone who has ever had a loved one in a nursing home understands the range of emotions it brings to the family, as well as the patient.  No matter how much I realized that the level of care needed for Mom was beyond my family’s and my abilities, it felt like we had given up on her.

As she continued to improve slowly, and was able to sit up for longer periods of time, we started bringing her down to the church service held in the main dining room on Sunday mornings.  The first time we took her was the morning of Christmas Eve.  Snow was falling like a scene straight from a movie, and as I listened to the message and watched the snowflakes fall gracefully through the large front windows of the facility, I took in the sight of all the residents in their wheelchairs.  Some were listening intently, others sleeping; my mom was sitting with my husband, Darrell, hunched over a songbook. I quietly sucked in my breath, and realized it was the first time that holiday season that it actually felt like Christmas.  It wasn’t the Christmases of my childhood, and my dad wasn’t there with us, but it felt like it would all be okay.  I felt peace.

Since then, we’ve started to take her to the service every Sunday that we can.  When I visit her during the week, she continues to tell me how much she got out of the service from the previous Sunday.  She’s been getting to know the people that help with the service, as well as the other residents.  She’s known around the facility as the Dog Lady.  I bought her a stuffed dog that looks like her dog at home, and even though she knows it’s not real, it keeps her company.  She says it makes her think of me, and she brings it with her wherever she goes.  During the week, several visitors bring their dogs with them, and they all know to take their canines to go visit Mom.  She will shower them with all the love and praises a little doggy could hope for.

More recently, my dad has been joining us on Sunday mornings.  He loves that we sing the old hymns he enjoys so much and he gets to take communion.  Dad and Mom hold hands during church, and share the songbook together.  There are times I see the two of them like that and my eyes fill with tears I can’t hide.  It is so precious to see a love that has endured.  I will put my arm around my mom and squeeze her thin, bony shoulder during the verses in the songs where I know where she gets emotional.  In that moment, we are a family.

Mom has been slowly weaned from the feeding tube, and we now have lunch in the dining room of the nursing home after church.  Darrell makes a point of going out to get us something from a local restaurant that we will all enjoy and brings it back for us to share a meal together.  Last week we had a video call with our son, Tyler, who is away at college, so he can say hello to his Grandpa and Grandma.  We laugh and catch up on all the things going on and just enjoy being together.

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After the church service before lunch.  Interesting to see we’re back to brightly-colored chairs and carpet.  All things old really are new again, I guess.

I wish I could tell you that we turned a corner and since we re-vitalized this family tradition all is happy and well, but of course, that isn’t true.  The reality of navigating the health issues of the elderly has many twists and concerns, and there are still good days and bad days.  These Sunday mornings often serve as a reminder of where all of us are in this journey of life.  Yet, somehow this comforting routine of church and lunch connects us in a way that no other gathering of our family does.  The familiarity of this simple custom, even under different circumstances with limitations, brings us immeasurable joy.

Some traditions go by the way of hair rollers and overly-long hair-drying sessions.  That’s not such a bad thing!  And sometimes a tradition just needs a tweak to make an old thing new all over again.  A family tradition that focuses on the family part, not all the details of the where and when, or practiced merely for the sake of tradition, is the one that will be remembered, cherished, and celebrated.  Even in the most unexpected places.

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The meals are simple, the ambiance is a little different, but the company can’t be beat.

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A Poem 50 Years in the Making

My brother turned 50 in April, and I decided to write him a poem for part of his present.  Don’t worry—I got him some tacky 50th Birthday gifts, too, to go along with this cheesy little ditty.

 

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Kevin and I many moons ago. Judging by our faces, I’m guessing they might have startled us with a squeaky duck or something else equally ominous.

 

I know an old, old geezer

His birthdays more than mine by far

His foolish youth I still remember

And how he built me my first car

 

Now I can’t get sentimental

That just wouldn’t fly

Cuz my older brother’s

Just not that kind of guy (in public, anyway)

 

The Three Stooges still can make him laugh

As can Smoky and the Bandit

Buford T. Justice chasing that black Trans Am all around

The point?  I’ll just never understand it

 

But there are many things about him

No one really knows but me

Like when we were kids at Grandma’s

We each had claimed a maple tree

 

His grew up a little taller

Its branches higher up the trunk

While mine housed the homemade swing

Played on ‘til the sun had sunk

 

Like most older brothers

He liked to aggravate

From pulling off my Barbie’s heads

To stealing goodies off my plate

 

I never will forget the time

He wiped boogers on my wall

His made up lyrics of victory

Ensuring I would squall

 

But there were times aplenty

Partners in crime were we

Sneaking peeks at our Christmas gifts

Before they appeared under the tree

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Easter around 1974

 

Growing up I idolized this goof

Wanting to be just like him

I even tried standing up to pee

Much to my mom’s chagrin

 

The music in his teenage years

Influenced me as well

.38 Special, ELO and Billy Squier

And of course, “Highway to Hell”

 

He still likes his fancy cars

And watching Cardinals on TV

He likes drinking nasty Natural Light

And plates with roast turkey

 

I’m glad I have a brother

Who taught me to be tough

A guy who likes to share his beer

And on the outside seems quite gruff

 

But you see I know another side

As sentimental as can be

And I hope that turning 50

Is an awesome memory

Happy Birthday, Kevin!

 

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Kevin and his kids around 2001. I like this picture of him because it shows him smiling.

Happy Anniversary!

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Twenty two years ago today, Darrell and I tied the knot. We’ve had wonderful times during those years, and I hope that we have at least twice as many more years together to have even more. After being with one person for that long, it’s so easy to take one another for granted and to let the little things, that in truth do not really matter, take up a lot of precious time and energy. Here are just the first twenty-two things I thought of when I thought about what a great husband I have (there are more!).

 Happy Anniversary!

  1. You kiss me in the morning even when I have morning breath.
  2. You know how to fix just about anything.
  3. You always answer my questions about politics or history—stuff that I should know, but don’t—patiently and don’t make me feel stupid.
  4. You love dogs.
  5. You know how to build awesome decks and remodel bathrooms.
  6. You show compassion towards people that other people ignore.
  7. You try to make me happy every day.
  8. You go with the kids to shop for presents when it’s my birthday or Christmas.
  9. You never complain about my housekeeping, even when you should.
  10. You help the kids with their math homework.
  11. You always drive the kids to school, even though it inconveniences you.
  12. You don’t complain when I watch my ghost shows, even though I know you don’t really like them.
  13. You never say no to Italian food.
  14. You always bring me a cup of coffee in the morning.
  15. You work hard to provide for us.
  16. You endure going to the doctor and having wires attached to you so that you can snore less and I can sleep much better.
  17. You help me be a more loving daughter.
  18. You are an excellent role model for our kids.
  19. You are always willing to share the last beer.
  20. You make me feel beautiful, even on days when I feel dumpy and gross.
  21. You love to reminisce with me about our good old days together. Bonus: You actually remember stuff.
  22. You are my voice of reason when I need one.

The Story of the Family Fiddle

It’s a fiddle. I can’t call it a violin because it has rattlesnake tails inside of it. Any self-respecting violin would not be found near a rattlesnake, but a fiddle would. (Betcha fiddles have more fun though.)

Growing up, I heard glowing tales of how Pappy, as my mom’s grandfather was called, had a priceless Stradivarius violin. I had fleetingly wondered how an expensive violin found its way to a farming family in rural northern Arkansas, but did not question it. After all, it was well-known that my great grandfather had been a talented musician who “could play anything that had strings.” Sadly, this is not a genetic trait passed onto me—I have to be satisfied just to be a great appreciator of music.

The story, which I’ve heard in various bits and pieces, was that he got the instrument from a Sears and Roebuck catalog back in the day. (Can you see why I questioned it being a Stradivarius?) I’m thinking it had to be in the 1920s sometime, because it had to be before the Depression, but after my grandfather was born in 1915. In today’s world we’d find it in the marked down section because it had some sort of cosmetic flaw or something was broken on it, and Pappy was able to fix it. I’m not exactly sure how that worked with catalog orders back then, so I wonder if there’s some mixing up of stories there. Or maybe he actually got it from a store in town and not a catalog.

In any event, he used his excellent carpentry skills to make it just like new. In addition to being able to play any instrument, Pappy could build anything, too. When I was a kid I remember there was a porch swing he made from a boxcar that had been broken up in a train derailment. In talking to my mom’s cousin, Ruth, it sounds like the swing I thought it was wasn’t the same one, so I’m not sure whatever happened to it.

Somewhere along the line, rattlesnake tails were added to the violin. My grandpa always said it had been done because doing so supposedly gave the instrument a better tone. Out of curiosity I looked it up to see if that was a prevalent thought, and it turns out that some people do believe it makes the sound sweeter. Other reasons for putting in the tails were for good luck, and my favorite, it kept rodents like mice from making a home inside of the violin. I like to think it made for a lucky, great- sounding instrument.

Ruth said that back in the day in a rural area such as Rector, Arkansas, people would go to each other’s houses and play music on Saturday night.   Another of Mom’s cousins, Steve, who is related through my grandmother’s side of the family, said that Grandpa and Grandma’s fathers would play the violins while others in their group played guitar. When I look closely at the neck of the violin, I can easily see the worn places where Pappy’s fingers held down the strings. I can picture in mind these get-togethers of neighbors, singing and having fun together on a Saturday night and it makes me smile.

Pappy is on the right, his brother Harry is on the left.  I can definitely see the family resemblance with my Grandpa Long and his dad.

Pappy is on the right, his brother Harry is on the left. I can definitely see the family resemblance with my Grandpa Long and his dad.

At my parent’s house somewhere, there’s another of Pappy’s instruments—a banjo he got in a bar fight. This story goes that the “country boys” were in the bar playing music, when some “city boys” decided they were going to show the country boys how things were done and a fight broke out. It ended when one of Pappy’s friends, the banjo player, broke his banjo over one of the city boy’s heads, nearly killing him. His friend took off after that, and apparently Pappy helped him get out of town on a train before he was lynched, promising him that he’d fix his banjo and give it back to him when he returned. He never came back for the banjo.

Ruth told me that by the time she knew him, Pappy’s playing days were behind him. He hurt his elbow hopping off a freight train and could no longer play. In her memories, as well as photos of him he had a bent arm that he held close to his body. I find it a strange coincidence that my mom also holds her arm in next to her body—her doing so as the result of a stroke, not from jumping off a train.

About a month ago, my parents came over to give me Pappy’s violin. My mom was so excited to share it with me. I wanted to learn all that I could about it. As I suspected, although labeled a “Stradivarius”, it was not a violin worth much in monetary value. The Stradivarius name was used by everybody, and from what I can tell it was more of a student version of the instrument. Not that it matters to me—I wouldn’t sell it. The sentimental value of a family heirloom that was once treasured so much means more to me than what it would sell for.

I’m planning to take it to a gentleman who builds and restores string instruments. But only if he promises not to smooth out those spots where the finish is worn from where Pappy’s fingers once pressed the strings. Oh, and I’m keeping the rattlesnake tails too. After all, no self-respecting fiddle would be without them.

Oh Christmas Tree, How Lovely (and FEW) Are Thy Branches

Today’s post is another story by my dad from when he was a teen. I wish you could see his face and hear him chuckle as he tells it in person. When I was growing up, I always begged my parents to put up the Christmas tree in early December (Christmas stuff in November was unheard of)! Today, when the Christmas season starts the day after Halloween, it seems unusual to wait to decorate for Christmas the week before, doesn’t it? He used to tell us this story about the year Grandpa tried to get a cheap tree from the grocer.

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A story from his youth, as recalled by Dad Christmas 2007

It was a Saturday morning in December when I was awakened by the noise of an argument. It was between Mom and Dad. Dad got a free Christmas tree from Kroger’s, a local grocery store. Dad bought several fruit baskets for his business customers and as a reward, Dad got a Christmas tree of his choice. Apparently Dad’s choice wasn’t very good because Mom was quite perturbed. Then I heard Mom’s voice call out”Paullll!” I thought I was in deep trouble and I wasn’t even out of bed yet. So I answered, “I will be down in just a minute as soon as I’m dressed.”

They both met me in the kitchen. Dad emphatically stated that by hook or crook, he wanted the Christmas tree put up by the end of the day. Mom nodded in silent agreement.

Meanwhile, my two younger brothers whom I shall call Ra and Ru got up. They heard the commotion too but played dumb. So we three had a hardy breakfast and proceeded to get to work. The tree was to be put outside the house facing the rear picture window of the sunken living room. The patio had a see-through corrugated roof. Ra and Ru and I struggled with “Dad’s prize tree” to get it into place on the patio, when disaster struck. The tree snapped in two. Ra and Ru looked at me in horror and said in unison, “Now what are we going to do?” Dad answered in a heartbeat because he was checking up on our progress. “You’re going to get a hammer and nails and nail it back together and if that doesn’t work, you’re going to wire it together. And another thing—that tree better be put up and decorated by this evening or there’s going to be hell to pay!” With that said, Dad got into his car and drove off. He had a doctor’s appointment.

Mom, meanwhile heard Dad’s harsh pronouncement and laughed. She said, “I never did like that tree,” and went back in the house. So Ra and Ru and I struggled to get the tree to the garage and proceeded to try and nail and wire it back together. Brother Ra, who was the practical one, shook his head and said, “It ain’t going to work.”

We stood the tree up and it broke in two again. Brother Ru, seeing the hopelessness of our situation, proceeded to go into the house and tell Mom of our plight. Mom came out and looked at the “bedraggled tree” and again laughed. My brothers and I didn’t think it was funny. Mom ordered us into the house. She went to her purse and handed me a twenty dollar bill. “Now,” she said, “there is a fruit market down the road and I’ve heard they have some very nice trees. Get one!”

We were in luck, Dad took the nice family car and left the 1954 Ford Station Wagon, with a rack on top. I always looked forward to driving (I just got my license that summer). We proceeded on our quest for a tree. Ra and Ru and I were a team. I drove, Ru picked out the tree and Ra made sure we didn’t pay too much for it. After some minor haggling, we got what was the “perfect tree”, even by today’s standards. I forgot what we paid for it, but it was within the limits of the twenty-dollar bill Mom gave us.

Mom was standing outside, waiting for our return and was to see “our prize” tree. “Hurry,” she said, “get it down so I can see it.” We unfurled the tree from the roof of the station wagon. Mom’s proud comment was “I have three sons that know how to pick out a Christmas tree.” We all proceeded to do our thing, set up and decorate our “perfect” tree.

Meanwhile, Dad returned from his doctor’s appointment. “Where are the boys?” he asked of Mom. Mom replied, “They are decorating the Christmas tree and you leave them alone.” Mom asked Dad, “By the way, how did your doctor’s appointment go?” Dad replied that doctor said his weight was the same, but his blood pressure was high.

Mom stalled Dad off until nightfall. We had a pleasant evening meal. Dad was anxious to see what we got out of chaos. The big moment finally came, Mom turned on the switch and “Voila!” a lighted Christmas tree. Dad was even amazed and said, “I sure know how to pick ‘em, don’t I?” Mom rolled her eyes and said under her breath, “There are some battles you can’t win.” Dad never did find out that his “prized tree” was replaced; in fact we made a wreath out of part of it for the front door.

A day or two later we had a calm, quiet Merry Christmas.

Home is Where Your Story Begins

Dear Tyler, Emily and Erin,

In the entryway, we have a sign that says “Home Is Where Your Story Begins”. As your Mom, I hope you know that’s true, and I hope you live what that means as your life story unfolds.

At dinner last night, Dad, who is not overly sentimental like me, told you that he realized that life would be changing over the next few years, as each of you pursues his and her dreams post-high school. What surprised me more was that he said he hoped that your memories here at home would be filled with all the good times that we’ve shared as a family. The way he said this declaration made me smile, mostly because it’s usually me that says things like that.

I barely remember married life before you came into the world, but the only life you know up to this point is in this family, in this home, with these people you call Dad, Mom and brother or sister. Even though Tyler’s four years older than Erin, I’m sure his memories before she was his little sister are vague. The romantic in me loves the fact that when you all are old and gray (or at least early 40s), the stories you will tell YOUR children about growing up started right here, in our home, with our little bunch. Dog stories. Lake stories. Funny stories. Sad stories. Lesson-learned stories. They all started here, with us. And I hope you tell them.

These stories are part of your make up, so you will always remember them. Maybe not every detail, but the general feel of an experience or how you felt in the moment. Which may or may not be the same as what your siblings or Dad or I remember about the same exact event. The shaving cream war in the backyard. The first year we put up a real Christmas tree (I forget what you named it…was it Chloe?). The day we got our dog, Grendel. When you read that first Harry Potter book. Sometimes what you tell me you remember about something we did surprises me. Usually it’s a detail I’ve forgotten until you mention it, so it makes me happy to know that you remember those little things. I hope you always remember the little things.

The three of you have so much potential to take out into that big world out there, and I know you will bless it with your individual talents and skillsets. Dad and I look forward to seeing just how you make your unique mark on this world, though we hope you don’t grow up too fast. Even if you don’t realize it yet, we hope we’re preparing you for life outside this home by giving you a firm foundation built out of love.

Home is where your story begins. Let’s make some great stories.

Love, Mom

Growing Up with My Dad

Our family circa 1973. Love the plaid!

As a kid, I don’t remember having the hectic evening schedule that our family does now. My mom was a stay-at-home Mom, and Dad got home from work around four o’clock in the afternoon. I remember he always had a recliner in the family room (we liked to call it his Archie Bunker chair—though my kind-hearted Dad and Archie don’t have much in common!) He worked outside all year around—our family business was a sand plant—so in the summer, stretching out in the recliner in the AC was a wonderful reprieve from the heat. He’d kick off his shoes, to which we kids were obliged to moan and groan about the stench—whether they actually were odiferous or not—and usually cat nap for about half an hour before he watched the news. The 5 o’clock news was always on at our home. Followed by the 5:30 national news and then back to the local 6 o’clock news. I remember I always hated when I had to turn off the channel I was watching so we could watch grown up shows like the news.

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This photo was taken after we’d had new carpet installed and Dad’s recliner hadn’t been put back in the family room yet. He took his nap right on the floor next to the dog. He’d worked hard, out in the heat all day. The same cannot be said for the dog.

When my brother and I were young teens, we got an Atari game system one year for Christmas, so sometimes when he came home he’d play Asteroids with us. To this day, I can remember us taking turns in front of the old console TV on these 70s-style hassocks my mom had. My dad, this big six foot three guy, would lean into his moves on that joystick with a lot of gusto, firing shots from that little triangle at those monstrous space rocks. I’m surprised the legs of those hassocks didn’t snap!

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That was the old set-up. The hassocks we sat on to play Atari or watch TV up too close were stacked there on the left. Oh, and Scamp, our family dog was front and center, too.

 Though he had to stop in later years for health reasons, when I was a kid Dad smoked a pipe. His favorite tobacco was this horrible smelling Captain Black. It came in a white pouch with black lettering and a picture of what looked like a pirate on it. For Christmas we’d buy him fancy tobacco from a cigar shop at the mall—Honey Cavendish or Cherry blend, which he always would smoke, but now I wonder if he did it just so it wouldn’t hurt our feelings. I think he really did like that Captain Black. He was a fairly polite smoker, before it became politically correct to be one. I have many memories of him doing a little hot pocket dance when he’d try to stow his pipe away in his pocket before it was cooled off. Note that this politeness in smoking did not extend to his family in the car. Nothing worse than being in the car in the middle of winter with the windows rolled up! Of course, this was well before all the public service announcements about second hand smoke. My brother and I just learned to hold our breath for a really long time.

As Daddy’s little girl, I got by with a lot of stuff my brother didn’t. A lot of things Kevin got yelled at for, I’d get maybe a stern look. Maybe. My husband says the only time he ever saw my dad reprimand me was once when we were at Steak ‘N Shake and I blew the straw wrapper off the straw at him and it landed on his head. Keep in mind I would have been about twenty years old at the time. But he’s probably right—Dad didn’t do more than mildly scold me, though I’m sure I deserved much more growing up. Especially when I was a bratty teenager. I remember saying awful, dramatic, teenage girl things to both my parents at one time or another, but they managed to love me anyway.

It’s not the best picture of either one of us, but this is my dad and I at my college graduation. I couldn’t have gone to college without my parents supporting me.

Next week, my Dad will celebrate his his 74th birthday. Long retired, he spends his days enjoying the History Channel and going out to lunch with my mom…(I should mention he ate cold salami sandwiches with mustard EVERYDAY for at least 25 years while running the sand plant). I am so glad that he’s my dad, and I smile when I think of all we have in common with our personalities. My dad raised me to have a strong faith, honor tradition (but don’t be bogged down by it) and to cherish family. Happy Birthday a little early, Dad! I love you.

A snapshot of Dad at his birthday dinner last year. He hates when I take pictures of him like this!

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