Talk To Me!

Communication is important, especially between large numbers of people all coming together for the same reason.  No, I’m not talking about protest marches or football games.  I’m talking about something much more important: pot-luck meals.  Don’t think that’s a big deal?  You must not have ever been to one.

If you’ve never come across the term, it means everybody attending brings some kind of food.  It is also referred to as a covered-dish meal, probably because not that long ago, you had to keep the food covered against insects and dirt until the meal started.

Family or friend pot-luck dinners are one thing.  You generally call around, checking to see what everybody is bringing, and the hostess usually makes sure there will be enough meat and side dishes and desserts.  But when the occasion becomes bigger, communication is even more important.

Church pot-lucks, for example.  All you have to do is go to one where the meat runs out before the line of eaters is finished to realize somebody should have been in charge of coordinating what everybody brought and figuring how many would be there.  The latter is sometimes impossible to predict, but at least there was a chance that somebody would be aware that there were only a couple of meat dishes and way too many side dishes.

These past few weeks I have been at functions that brought home the importance of communication.  In our area, the usual ritual is to have a meal after a funeral or memorial service, so that family and friends could gather and share their grief and love for the departed one.  Friends always took care of planning the meal, because the family had their hands full with grief and trying to deal with arrangements for the funeral or memorial service.

I have been to many of these meals since I am friends with many in our rural area and small towns.  Some of them are small with mostly family attending, but a couple have been enormous with a huge number of relatives and even more friends.  At one of the largest, the deceased’s employer had offered to cater the meal, and the family paid a young woman to meet the caterers and arrange the food at the community center where the meal would be held, while the mourners were finishing up the funeral at the graveside nearby.

Not everybody knew this, including me.   I personally brought several foods, meat and a couple of side dishes, I think.  I got there early, forgoing the graveside service, figuring I could help with the meal since the ladies who usually dealt with it were family members of the deceased and were at the graveside service.  I discovered the young woman arranging everything in the kitchen, which had two doors and a long counter, with two or three long tables for added surface space.

This immediately told me two things: one, she didn’t know how meals worked in our community center, and two, she had not seen how many mourners had been at the funeral.  I had and knew her arrangement was not going to work.  She was surprised and balked a little when I advised her the drinks and desserts needed to go in the main dining hall on larger tables.  She began to believe me when more ladies began showing up with more food, and the counter began being covered.  She had not even set out the meal the caterers had brought yet, keeping it warm in the oven and cool in the refrigerator.

She was astonished and a little dismayed when we finally had everything set up, with three long tables covered with desserts, two long tables covered with tea and coffee and a cooler on the floor full of ice and another full of canned drinks, and a kitchen with a long counter and two long tables all crowded with food.  “Won’t this be too much food?” she worried.  No, it wasn’t.  By the time the family and friends made their way through the line past all the food, the large amount of food the caterers provided and the extra food the friends of the family brought had dwindled to a few desserts.  If the friends of the family had not brought their dishes, only half the mourners would have had anything to eat.  NOT knowing about the catered food saved that meal.

Last week, another meal after a memorial service occurred.  The widow had asked the ladies of her church, which included me, to take care of arranging for food and drink for the family and friends later at a different community center.  One of the most experienced ladies here contacted all the usual members who donated food for these meals and figured whether we needed more or less of one food or another.  It was going to be simple, with only water to drink and sandwiches and soup and desserts for the food.  The only sticking point was how much would be needed since the family had many friends not from our area who would be attending.

The ladies of the church all brought our food, and the lady in charge made sure it got to the community center and got it set up with a few other women.  Few from our church and local area could attend the meal since it was almost an hour away and it was a weeknight with everybody needing to work the next day.  It was mostly the ladies who were retired who went to the community center to help out.  We got the sandwiches and soup set out and worried if there would be enough after seeing how many mourners had been at the memorial service.

We didn’t need to worry.  Apparently, the widow had not told their other friends that her church was handling the meal.  One man walked in with several large pizzas.  One came in with an enormous pan of barbecued sausages.  Desserts galore began crowding the dessert tables.  Boxes and boxes of fried chicken pressed up against the other meats. By the time they decided to start eating, the dishes were fighting for space on the long line of tables.

When everybody declared themselves stuffed there was still a large amount of food left, and the widow said she could not take it all home.  Then she had a brilliant idea.  She came up to us as we were contemplating all the remaining food and announced, “I solved it!  I just told all the college students they could take all this food back to their dorms!”  It was a perfect solution.  We got rid of the excess food, the kids got food for a week, and they did all the heavy labor of hauling the food to their vehicles, leaving us to just clean up.

Communication when coordinating is very important.  Sometimes you get all the information needed, and sometimes not.  Sometimes you just get lucky despite the missing information.

A SLICE OF AMERICAN LIFE

A few days ago I enjoyed a weekend experiencing that staple of small town Americana, the high school Homecoming.  For those who have never seen various movies or grew up in large urban areas or have never lived in the United States, let me explain.

In most small towns large enough to have a high school and a football team, they hold an annual celebration called a Homecoming, where alumni who remember their high school days fondly (or wonder about their classmates’ lives in the years between graduation and the present) gather back together for a day or two.  A pep rally is held to cheer for the football team and raise enthusiasm for the following game.  The alumni are recognized.  There is usually a parade at some point with groups of alumni creating and riding in floats, on trailers, or sometimes just vehicles.

I graduated from a town in north Texas named Rising Star.  There were 21 in my graduating class as I recall (haven’t located my yearbook yet), and at least two of them were juniors who took extra classes to get the necessary credits to graduate a year ahead.  The entire high school had a total of about 100 students the year I graduated.  We were so small that during the field and track season, there were only about three students who were not involved in the various events.  I was one of them.  We would spend the entire day in study hall with one teacher when the track meets were held out of town.

In a town this small, football is a huge deal.  Homecoming weekend is pretty much the biggest deal of the year, except for perhaps the Halloween school carnival.  People who have been away for decades come back for it. The representative for our class who went to the alumni business meeting  (yes, they have those) said they had started a roll call of alumni classes with the 2015 graduating class, and she finally left when they reached 1948, and were still going.

I graduated in 1976.  Forty years I’ve been away, and this was the first time I had made it back for a Homecoming even though I lived only four hours away.  Why so long?  Mostly, I think, I was so busy living my life I wasn’t really curious about my classmates, and hadn’t really been involved in the town or the school in the two years I spent there before I graduated.

Now, however, I’m retired, and thanks to social media and the enthusiasm of classmates who did want to gather, I decided to go.  About half the class was able to make it, one even despite nearly dying in an auto accident in August.  Several classmates still lived there in the still very small town and one was even a businessman and city council member.  (Still shaking my head over that, Johnny.  You, a politician?)

I had a terrific time, I have to admit, and also have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.  My sister had gone to her graduating class’ Homecoming several years before and was not inclined to ever repeat it.  She went with me only to provide transportation and get away for a weekend and figured she would get in a good amount of reading while I socialized.

She forgot that, even though she graduated from a different school after our family moved following my graduation, she had gone to Rising Star’s junior high school with the younger siblings of my classmates.  Since she has an incredible memory, she remembered them. Once she started asking my classmates about them, she found herself caught up in regular conversation and never did get to her reading until we were back at our hotel.

I was having a great time, too.  I wasn’t so much interested in nostalgic memories, since I spent the two years I’d been in school there working when I wasn’t in class, and had zero interest in sports of any kind, so I had rarely been to any of the games.  I had not socialized much due to my work hours and mostly remembered my classmates from our time in classes.

I was fascinated by how they had spent the years between, and how their lives had turned out.  I had never been able to use the scholarship I had been awarded for an out of state college, but had wound up accomplishing more in my career than I had ever dreamed I would and had done the things I had always wanted to, like writing nationally read published works (training material and procedural manuals, but hey, they made life easier for a lot of people).

I was delighted to find several of my classmates had become teachers.  I figured that had made our class sponsor, our English teacher, laugh really hard after the hard time we gave her.  (Sorry, Mrs. Burns, if I ever made you gnash your teeth!)  Some of us had gone into the medical field.  Some, like Johnny, had become businessmen and women.  Some had become civil servants like myself.  One had become a pastor (yeah, still shaking my head over that one, too, Clark).

Most of us had gone through health problems, several of us with breast cancer.  We lost some classmates to accidents, and even one to an unsolved murder.  One we had even more sadly lost to suicide.  Like many small towns, some of those had been family members and the mourning was doubled.

It was, in the end, the kind of family reunion you wished you could always go to, where the conversation flowed freely as well as the laughter, many hugs were exchanged, experiences were gasped and laughed over, and good food was shared.  Old pictures and news clippings were pored over.  There were no snide remarks made, no sniping at each other, or ugly memories recalled (at least not in my hearing).  I was, again, in awe of people like Tami and Denise and Brenda and Marilyn (okay, I need to quit), who could remember everything that happened to EVERYBODY. I can’t remember what happened to me half the time.

We joined together enthusiastically just as we had those decades ago for the pep rally, the football game, and for decorating our cars and riding them in the very short parade, waving madly at the townspeople who lined the single street we went down. (Note to self: anytime a parade is even mentioned in passing, get a big bag of small candies to throw to the kids, just in case you get to be in it.  It’s important!)

After the parade, we joined one last time in cleaning up what we could before we had to rush back to south Texas.  (Sorry, Brenda, I know we probably should have done more!)  It was hard saying goodbye, but my sister took many photographs, and that will help.  As we all agreed, social media is great for staying in touch, and hopefully we will see each other before we’re too old to enjoy it again.

So, here’s hoping life will get even better for you guys, as I hope it will for me.  I was so glad to see you again, Bonnie, Brenda, Robert, Tami, Denise, Marilyn, Marion, Johnny, Teco, Susan, Nancy, Kim, and others whose names I cannot remember (sorry, I totally blame the chemo!) but thoroughly enjoyed meeting.  I asked my sister to check my list of names since her memory is better, but this was the best I could do.  And for any of you who weren’t there, yeah, of course we talked about you, but at least we didn’t nominate you for a committee!

Time marches on, the saying goes, and sometimes it marches in a great direction, leading folks back to each other.  I’m looking forward to having it circle around again. Thanks for the memories, as Bob Hope liked to say.  Love you all.

It’s a Family Thing

“It’s the family joke,” my 88 year old uncle told me over breakfast at our favorite pancake spot.  “My brothers and sisters used to tell it all the time.  Lucky for them I think it’s funny, too.”

“It’s like this,” he explained, staring at his coffee as he concentrated on remembering the exact wording.  “It all started when I married my sister’s niece.”  He scowled at my expression.  “Not MY niece. HER niece.  There’s a difference, you know.”  Then he paused.  “You should write this down,” he suggested.  “So you get it right.”

I thought that was a good idea, so I pulled out a notepad and pen.  He proceeded with the explanation.  “You see, when I married your aunt, I became my wife’s uncle, my sister’s nephew, a first cousin to my nieces and nephews, and finally, my own uncle.”  I thought about it later, and realized he hadn’t mentioned he and his wife were also first cousins to their own children and to each other.  Huh.  I’ll have to point that out to him.  He’ll probably get a laugh out of that, too.

Relationships interest me.  I’m one of five sisters.  People often ask us if we have any brothers.  It’s our family joke that we used to, but we got rid of them.  I wonder why they always look like they’re not sure whether to believe us or not…

I live with one sister.  The others all  live alone.  If my sister and I could afford it, we’d probably live alone, too.  We’re all happy hermits, with our own preferences and habits.  Even the two of us who share a house can spend hours in silence, cheerfully ignoring each other.  One sister did get married and stayed that way for thirty years till she became a widow and raised two lovely daughters, but now she lives alone and enjoys it.  We’re close, though, when trouble looms, like when we all wound up with various forms of cancer, or somebody needs some transportation, or a hand moving something around.

Facebook has been a real boon to us, because now we can keep in touch with each others’ lives without getting on each others’ nerves, which was always a problem before.  Keeping in close contact can create friction and heat, just like with brakes.  I’ve found it’s the same way with friendships.  I’m a whole lot closer to people now that I don’t have to look at them all day, like my coworkers.  It works for us.

Because of my interest in relationships, I’ve been checking into genealogy and asking a lot of questions of my relatives.  If it weren’t for my preference for tact and manners, I’d ask lots of rude questions about their marriages, and family lives, and what are their children doing running around with that crowd?  Oh, the things I’d like to know, but know it’s rude to ask, and some questions might get me arrested for stalking…  So I stick to the relatives that aren’t around any longer.

My father and uncle’s mother told her children when they asked about him that her daddy was hung for a horse thief and that’s all she would say about it so never ask again or else!  They took her seriously.  She was the kind of woman you took seriously.  I knew her for a short while, and I totally understood.  My mom told me when I asked that as far as she knew, during the Civil War her forefathers had spent the war raiding the farms of those whose menfolk had gone away to fight.  Sheesh! Outlaws on both sides?  But a few years after that, she was listening to a history program on the radio and heard some names she recognized from her family’s lineage, and found she might have some relatives who were Union generals commanding prisoner of war camps.  My uncle and father’s paternal grandfather was a doctor in the Confederacy for all of three months.

I decided to spend some time on Ancestry.com and see what I could find.  It’s been very interesting.  My dad’s maternal grandfather’s death certificate said he died of heart disease in 1918.  Either she was wrong (or couldn’t stand her dad – apparently he was abusive) or the doctor was trying to be polite.  It also listed his father, but his mother was unknown, at least by the informant, who had his last name but an illegible first initial.  Handwriting, people!  It’s important!  Someday some genealogist will be trying to read yours! His wife died six years later of exhaustion as a result of senile dementia.  She was 62.

The Confederate doctor spent his time in the military hiding in a tent.  No, he wasn’t a coward; he had asthma, and the dust raised by all the soldiers was killing him.  But the soldiers discovered he was a doctor and formed long lines at his tent every day, because even without battles going on, you could easily get injured.  When the army was preparing to move, his commanding officers told him to go home before he got worse and just take care of the folks at home.  He obeyed, and rode horseback in a three county circuit to provide medical care for the citizenry. He had lost a young wife after a ten year marriage and seven children, and had joined the cavalry to try to get over not being able to save his own wife and child.  It was time to get back to his remaining six children.

But his three months in service was enough to score his second wife and widow a pension from the state after his death and a bed in a Confederate widow’s home in Austin until her death.  I have a copy of her application for the pension and her death certificate.  She died of ‘cancer of the heart’.  Studying her life history, I realized she had at 22 married a man old enough to be her father and started her married life with six children.  Then she got to run the homestead and his children while he doctored the public.  Tough lady, she lasted until she was 84.

I’m still working on my mom’s side.  She’s great for remembering names and I now have several pages of names and families and locations to look up.  Both she and my late father come from very prolific families and the men seem to have outlived more than one wife and had kids by all of them, so there is a lot to look up.  It’s very interesting, though, and I keep running into unexpected side trips, like the book of oaths I found from Georgia that all the men over 21 had to sign and swear they would not rise up against the United States after the end of the Civil War.  I love history, but I am so glad I didn’t live through it.

My uncle brought over the family Bible he found in a back room some years after his wife died.  I photocopied the list of births and deaths such old family Bibles always had and thumbed through the rest of it, because I’m always interested to see if the owners ever made notes in the margins like some people (read, me) do.  To my surprise, a tightly folded thin piece of paper fell from between the pages.  Opening it carefully, I discovered it was a letter written by my father’s and my uncle’s father, a farmer and carpenter, that was never sent.  It was a ‘day in the life’ kind of letter, that people used to mail to each other instead of putting it on Facebook in bits and pieces.  At the very end he mentions that his stomach is bothering him and he would take a shot of medicinal whiskey to see if it would settle.  I glanced up at the date at the top and realized in shock it was the day before he died of a burst appendix.  My uncle and I just stared at each other.  Talk about hearing ghosts of the past.

I am eager to see what else I find about my family history and any interesting little side trips.  I know my family has traveled far and wide.  A few years back, we held a Perry family reunion in a recently discovered rural cemetery.  No, we’re not weird; most cemeteries in the country were next to churches, and we are used to big celebrations involving food and faith surrounded by gravestones.  We saw several very small cars pull up next to the big pickup trucks and SUVs most of my relatives drove.  A flood of Japanese tourists, complete with collections of cameras around their necks, came up to our group as we paused over our barbecue, potato salad, watermelon, and chocolate cake.  We figured they had managed to get thoroughly lost, because this tiny Civil War era graveyard was waaaaaaay out in the sticks.  Instead, their spokesperson grinned widely, pointed at the banner somebody had hung among the trees and said “Perry?”  When we nodded, fascinated, he pointed at himself and the rest of his group and announced, “Perrys!”  We now have a large family photo of short Japanese folk surrounded by tall gangly Texan cowboys, all grinning proudly.  I can hardly wait to see who else I might be related to.

Almost forgot to add this:  To complete the family circle, I just met the newest member of our large family.  (I’m pretty sure she’s the newest at only a few weeks old.)  The family on all sides makes adorable babies and boy, do we love to take pictures.  One of the projects I’d love to do is fix a baby book with the several generations of baby photos we have, and maybe throw in the oldest photos we have.  Family should be a thing to celebrate, and if you’d rather not associate with yours, start your own.  Family is not alway made of blood connections.  Go hug someone today, and tell them a joke.