Postponing the Inevitable

Mom, do you want me to call them?

No, that’s okay.  Let them enjoy their Thanksgiving.  Call them tomorrow if you want to.

That was how my mother and I decided to handle the news that Thursday morning.  I waited until the day after Thanksgiving, and then called my godparents to let them know that my brother had died.  I write this some thirty years later, and it is still difficult to piece together the emotions and the timeline.  There is no right or wrong way to share the news of a loved one’s passing; under any circumstances it is difficult; but when it is from suicide, one is dumbfounded and finds little comfort in what appears to forever remain unexplainable.

I grew up around first generation born Americans; the old country’s manner was still very much the watermark for who, what, when, where and why they thought and lived as they did.   Having little more than traditions to fall back on, some made the changes more easily; others never adapted.  Still others didn’t care or subconsciously decided nothing was that important to stop them from their immediate week’s business schedule.  Sometimes one was lucky and received an explanation or, at the very least, a mantra of sorts to help understand the world around us:

Life is for the living, Annette.

This expression was often recited to me from our silver-haired, next door neighbor, who was like a father to all of us.  He had watched our family go through an emotional roller coaster from the time my brother first became ill.  Many years before, I had run next door crying,  telling him Daddy needed help; Only Bro didn’t want to go back to the hospital and was running away!  Our fatherly neighbor chased my brother down the street, managing to catch him fairly quickly, though it seemed a much longer drama at the time.  Our neighbor talked him into walking back to the house, and then rode with him and Daddy on the return trip to the state hospital.

Daddy was also more aware than Mom just how great a toll the past seventeen years had taken on their only son.  Near or far, we had all felt my brother’s ups and downs this past year.  Even a trip to Disneyland earlier that summer had given the folks only a very brief respite from their son’s recurring illness. Daddy remained passionate; for the most part, he trusted his own instincts, but didn’t hesitate to listen for guidance from the professionals.  Neither of the folks was prepared for anything like their son’s mental breakdown or its long-term ramifications.  Much of what Dad heard and observed over the initial months and early years he kept from Mom;  he managed to hide certain details for long periods of time.  Ultimately, he couldn’t protect her or any of us siblings.  Nor could we as a family ease my brother’s anguish, no matter how much we remained involved over the ensuing years.

I was one hundred and eighty miles away from the home base; I might as well have been on another planet.  I had just finished setting up the buffet table for my in-laws and our cousins.  We would be about sixteen tomorrow, give or take a few little critters. I had picked up the paper and just read about a plane crash that had killed over one hundred people.  I remember thinking what a sad Thanksgiving holiday it would be for all the families affected by that crash; then the phone rang.

Once Big Sis and I finished talking, there was nothing for me to do but to maintain my end of the family unit. The youngest sister was on her way down for the holiday.  She had yet to hear, so would walk in Wednesday evening and learn then that our brother was gone.  Big Sis would stay until the youngest arrived; then leave to return home to her own family and her own kitchen.

Mom was cooking Thanksgiving dinner; my brother’s widow and their two beautiful daughters would still be there, just as they always were each Thanksgiving with Mom and Daddy.  This would be as nice a family dinner as anyone could hope for under the circumstances.

As my mother had chosen to do that Thanksgiving Day, I too chose the familiar; I cooked my planned meal, made sure everyone at my home had enough to eat, and continued any familiar rituals available to me for Thanksgiving’s sake…there would be plenty of time to grieve later.  Neither Mom nor I could afford to fall apart; we had loved ones to serve and leftovers to put away.

Melding Traditions at Thanksgiving

Our parents had a common heritage and instilled in us the importance of family and tradition. Among her staunch convictions was that Mom sincerely believed that older people were interesting to listen to, and that without them, the world would be very boring. In Daddy’s mind, family was his siblings; we kids were a close second, and accepted our place in the pecking order, especially on holidays.

Some of the more wonderful memories I have as a small child on Thanksgiving were making the rounds with Daddy.  We visited his older sister first thing; might not yet have been 10:30 in the morning, but they were up and ready for us, our aunt greeting us like long lost prodigals, and our uncle hugging us in a vice-like grip that, once over, convinced us we could still breathe on our own; our ribs hadn’t cracked.

Daddy would join the adults in a holiday drink and we girls had Shirley Temples.  It was okay on Thanksgiving to eat dessert in the morning.   Cookies on the side table were waiting.  One type in particular was an old family favorite that only my oldest aunt baked – a ravioli-looking cookie with apricot or prune filling, dusted with confectioners’ sugar.  The “Tourtons” brought back memories of “down the house” and was one of Daddy’s favorites; they soon were mine, too!

Back at home, our Thanksgiving table was set to include the aunts and uncles who had no children.  They were brave enough to join us two of the three main holidays each year.  Only Bro and his family always joined us as well.  This was a fun time for us younger aunties to spend with our two little nieces.

Mom’s concerted efforts to replicate the familiar repast, again from “down the house”, kept everyone happy; our table was always bountiful. Sadly, the meals caused our mother considerable stress and strain to maintain the expected standards each year.  She was a nervous wreck on every holiday.  Once she had served the dinner, however, she could finally relax in the knowledge that it had met with everyone’s expectations and approval.  Talk about peer pressure!

Sometimes I honestly wish that I could relive just one of those Thanksgivings. I loved hearing the stories around the table, especially from my uncle who had served in WW I.  My aunt’s harmony and the siblings’ ability to break into song during dessert can never be replicated.  This was a once in a lifetime experience; even our nieces barely recall some of the original players.

The older ones are all gone now.  We second generation are left to communicate and continue the traditional family fare. Our challenge is to communicate the caring and the sharing, not the stress and strain! I long ago made choices; neither time nor finances would ever afford me the opportunity to completely recreate our childhood dinner table. Since then, I have chosen to include some things and delete others; often, I alternate certain specialties from time to time.

Fast forward; I managed to pass along some of our family standards to My Only.  New traditions had to be melded to accommodate the latter day necessity of job commitments and the longer distances traveled between family branches.    My Only doesn’t remember the uncle who squeezed me to death until I thought my ribs would crack!  Traditions had changed as had the personalities involved.

When her turn came, My Only learned all the nuances for her uncles. For example, she learned how to properly greet her Uncle J.  We fashioned a particular protocol, specially honed for the one uncle who didn’t like little kids hugging or hanging on him with sticky hands and runny noses…

I kept the instructions simple:

Honey, just walk in, say “Hello, Uncle J” and keep on walking toward Auntie Dee…

Talk about passing with flying colors; my daughter became a master at this routine.  She’d be through the front door and nearly midway toward the kitchen by the time he could respond, “Hi, Kid”.

It worked. We always had a great visit, and Uncle J thought she was rather well behaved; for a kid.

(My Only with her two big cousins; circa 1980)

THANKSGIVING DAY

May blessings big and small, large,

Little, thin and fat exceed

Your smallest expectations and help

See you through this season’s needs!

With brothers and sisters take

Comfort under His arms and wings

Until you hold in your own hands

A cornucopia of favored things!

Honest toil, good health, a smile,

Some crusty bread, a wedge of cheese

With heirs and friends, join

Loving hearts in gratitude for all of these!

Have a Safe, Blessed and Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

We Were Americans

Mom and Dad brought a common heritage to their first and only new home on Rubberneck Avenue.  Our table had the same four food groups from “down the house” like our grandparents‘ home: wine, French bread, salami, and cheese.  The traditional hospitality of offering a casa croute (sharing of the house bread) continued on Rubberneck as well.

While our table often identified us as French descent, herein lay the distinction:  we were Americans first.  We joined the melting pot of other first and second generation families whereby respect and love for country were inherently as important as the November celebrated reason for gathering.   Like the Pilgrims at Plymouth, we ate turkey on Thanksgiving; the main course, however, was followed by the required bit of French bread and blue cheese to enjoy with the last sips of wine, while we listened to the stories that our uncles with accents had to tell.

 

Author’s Note: plate pictured was always used for salami on holidays!

Talking Turkey

Our most American tradition – celebrating the year’s harvest and blessings – is once again upon us.  Thanksgiving is a holiday that Americans can historically claim as our very own. Does that mean that other peoples before us were ungrateful?  Not by any means.  But IT IS OURS, the one day on the calendar that evokes a melting pot of commonality, culture,  and deep emotions; encouraging a nation of immigrants to give official thanks for the many blessings and bounty we share in our land.

I submit that while holidays can be difficult at times, maintaining some or all of the family traditions can be especially comforting; let these rituals provide the familiar landscape wherein each of you can still participate, even if the role is slightly amended from years before.  If need be, add a new tradition. I suggest:

The “Talk Turkey” Challenge:

  • Give yourself permission to share a story that you’ve never told before; grandparents, this means YOU.
  • Encourage all ages to join in the conversation.  Keep the technology at a minimum (football games excluded)
  • Don’t pull rank; parents often do, then wonder why the kids never talk.  Embrace the ones around you; life is too short to let a minor grievance ruin the holiday camaraderie.
  • Allow a bit of silliness!  (Not necessarily at the expense of table manners, but you be the judge; lots of family stories evolved from dinner tables in past years; try not to shudder.)
  • Fight over the last drumstick; cajoling a sibling into a little childhood skirmish can be fun, especially if one or both parents or an aunt or uncle are still around to watch and laughingly reminisce…
  • Consider each new happenstance a future memory; find the humor in it and laugh together.
  • Look into each face around the table. Observe the personality nuances and mannerisms.  In as brief a span as five years, table personalities will change; children will grow, friends will leave the area; family branches will sprout afar.
  • Can’t travel to be together this Thursday?  Just wait until the next time you can all regroup!  The possibilities are endless!

Growing up, it was easy to take the Thanksgiving holiday for granted; November was a happy month, the start of the Holidays!  Some of us matured rather abruptly once we saw our president assassinated; we all remember where we were, who informed us, and the immediate days after when, as a grieving nation, we gathered that next week to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Many of us remembered only a little boy saluting goodbye to his daddy.

The old adage, Death has no age, was suddenly meaningful; it is this year for some whose  loved one will be missing for the first time this Thanksgiving.  The holiday season can be a particularly painful period.

The coming months present some economic challenges for many; some earners last year are currently unemployed and find themselves in a completely different scenario than the last time they hit the pavement.  Hitting a keyboard can be just as frustrating.

Thanksgiving will arrive just the same. This season, keep our fellow countrymen in prayer.  Choose how to make Thursday one of the sweeter Thanksgiving Days in recent memory.  May we forever feel a depth of gratitude for the lives and goodness He has bestowed upon each of us.

Rejoice! Celebrate! Praise God! Lastly, may God Bless America.

Gifting Outside the Box – 2021 UPDATE

Establishing months for special causes works really well for marketing purposes, but it won’t prevent the occasional gaps that occur in between.  A good example is our Military Families and Veterans.  May and November holidays call attention to these groups, but their needs are year-round.

Americans are some of the most caring and generous people in the world. While each generation may have had its challenges, the time for each of us to think and consider gifting outside the box has arrived…so, I suggest we change our course for Thanksgiving and Christmas Seasons THIS YEAR.  Pick up an extra can or two at the market and delete a gift or two from under the tree; here are some alternative gifting ideas:

  • Donate to the local food pantry at your church or one in your community.  COVID-19 and its ramifications have been financially tougher than most for many of our loved ones; some who previously donated in the past now find themselves on the receiving end. No telling about 2022…so,
  • Fill those plastic bags that the Scouts leave at your door with canned goods and pantry staples up to the brim!
  • Support your local merchant; don’t be fooled by a national brand.  Many of the “chain” stores and fast food restaurants are actually franchises owned by individuals who have faces,  names,  families, and payrolls to meet.
  • Let your children carry change in their pockets…The Salvation Army will have their red kettles out very soon.  They will have more needy than ever to feed and clothe.  The change adds up quickly, and the kids will get a big kick out of contributing!
  • Carry an extra ten dollar bill or whatever you can afford on your person when traveling by air…happen to see a serviceman or servicewoman traveling home or leaving on assignment?  Press the bill in their hand, thank them for their service, and give them permission to “spend” a little something on themselves.  You’d be amazed at the morale booster an unexpected greenback from a total stranger can give…I’ve seen the smiles myself.
  • USO Centers  can only stretch their holiday cheer so far; when multiple units begin passing through in droves during the holiday season, the pickings can get very slim.  Check in with the Center nearest you, especially if you have memories of having yourself spent a holiday at one just like it.
  • Your local VFW will happily accept donations for Operation Uplink, the internet phone program for military overseas to communicate with loved ones at home.
  • Some of us had a child who was helped by medical foundations or organizations like Shriners Hospitals for Children.  There are little ones there now, too…in the same departments we once visited on a regular basis.
  • Whether you belong to a service club or not, you have friends who do.  Ask if they need support on any particular projects.  Rotarians are busy year-round, and their Rotary Foundation is one of the best places to put money to work, locally and globally.

THESE ARE ONLY A FEW IDEAS from your humble writer.  Thanks for indulging my 2021 soapbox persona by reading this special snippet.

Sincerely,

Custer 🙂

A Family Affair

I remember walking around the corner shoe store repair, heading back up the street on the way home with Mommy that day…she was really excited! Mommy had her carryall filled to the brim with lots of good things.  An aunt and uncle who lived very far away would be coming to visit us in the next few days.  I asked who they were.  My mother told me that I had been too young to remember when they last visited.

You know your little pink rocker, Annette?

Ohhhh…the light bulb was beginning to turn on…  They were the ones who had sent me the small rocking chair with its rattan seat; something especially for me from very far away.  So, I knew of them by the little rocker that was mine.

One thing about listening to my mother – you got a textbook history in any and all topics – and their story was no exception.

Originally from Georgia, my uncle had been stationed in California many years before. This Georgian absolutely loved kids and noticed a little guy in the neighborhood playing all alone.  Apparently, my future uncle asked the little guy’s mother for permission to play ball with him; that’s how my uncle met my aunt, who was my father’s baby sister, a young WWII widow.  Eventually, the two adults fell in love and married.  Years later, my cousin would follow in his new father’s footsteps and also choose a Navy career.

Mommy continued on…Uncle was now a Lieutenant Commander.  Mommy stressed how very important his new position was.  Actually, my mother stressed about almost everything!  Aloud, she hoped she had picked up enough French bread and that the meal she was planning for the night at our home was different than what another sister-in-law would be serving, and that she hoped we had enough cheese and salami on hand…Mommy’s excitement was absolutely infectious!

There were a few times that I “connected” well beyond my four years of age, with the particular significance surrounding our household events.  Hence, I was starting to pick up just how very important their visit would be, so I asked Mommy:

Will we have to salute him?

Naturally, that made the rounds pretty quickly once their visit had begun.

By the time I was growing up, Armistice Day had been renamed Veterans Day; my mother made sure that I knew the historic background of our country’s holiday at a very early age.  I had a cousin who was born on Armistice Day when it was Armistice Day.  I was born on Christmas Eve; thus far, no one had renamed it.

This would be the first of many visits from Uncle Bake and Auntie that I would actually remember.  So, I listened quite intently as Mom explained that because Uncle was still in the Navy, they couldn’t visit us very often – like around the holidays – when most families gathered.

Because their visits with us were always limited, the days took on a holiday feeling when these two returned to the West Coast.  Each visit might be short, but that wouldn’t stop any of the siblings from filling it as full of family good times as the suitcase full of comfort foods returning with Auntie.

One of the things that Auntie missed most was the sourdough French bread; no matter where in or out of the country they had been stationed, she still claimed nothing ever came close to the bread from California.  Over the years, the older siblings would chip in and help fill up one suitcase going back with Auntie and Uncle to their next post; it would be filled to the brim with Larraburu French Bread and enough salami to feed a company!

Each May Americans remember Memorial Day with a quiet moment of reverie for the family members who have passed on; the same ones we used to hug and kiss goodbye, then send off with a suitcase full of Home.  Today, there remain several opportunities for those of us who want to support our living Veterans and current military men and women; they, too, would appreciate receiving “a bit of Home” now and then.   None of us need wait until May or November to remember our military.  Their calendars have twelve months, just like ours do!

So, when a few extra dollars can be found, at any time of year, send them on…the internet makes it easy to find a favorite charity, adopt a soldier, gift a military family, or send a donation to your local VFW or USO.  Then pack that picnic lunch and give thanks for another holiday in this precious land…