Posts Tagged With: family reunion

Grief and Recovery

It’s been just over a week since my last blog entry, and while I hadn’t planned on a break, I needed one.  The week has been a reminder of how grief slips back into our lives, tripping us up at unexpected moments, even happy ones.

I last blogged as I was about to leave for a family reunion, one I looked forward to attending.  It had been two years since I’d attended; I skipped in 2012, the year my dad died — I wasn’t back from Greece at that point.  Maybe I meant to skip it — maybe I just wasn’t ready for it.  Regardless, I missed that year.  

The trip driving up was easy.  I plugged in my iPod and sang as I drove north to Many, turned west, and headed to San Augustine.  The drive was a familiar one, one I’d shared with Dad a number of times after I’d taken over the driving.  It wasn’t the first time I’d driven that route since Dad’s death, yet there was an undercurrent of bittersweetness that grew as I drove.  For a lot of the way, even as I sang along with my iPod, there was a running commentary in my memory of things Dad had often said or pointed out on those drives.  His enjoyment at being able to relax and be a passenger for a change was always obvious on those trips, and I remembered that also.

When I arrived on Friday night, my sister had already arrived, as had our Aunt Jean, Aunt Mildred, and our cousin Mike and his wife Sissy.  Hugs and kisses were immediate; laughter and lots of chatter filled the air as we quickly unpacked and then prepared our dinner.  Even though the next day was going to be a long one, we sat for hours and caught up with each other’s news.

By midnight we’d all gone to bed.  Kay was sleeping in the living room near the air conditioner.  I was sleeping in the fireplace bedroom, the one Dad always used.  I read a bit, turned out the lights, and was sound asleep before too long.

Without an alarm, I woke up about 8 a.m. and headed for my truck to get the diet Coke I’d left there — I needed my wake-up caffeine.  With it, I wandered back to the living room and joined the family.  Soon, though, I was at work in the kitchen, putting my potato salad together for the reunion lunch.  Though Aunt Mildred was also working in the kitchen, there was plenty of room.  When the salad was finished and covered and in the refrigerator, I quickly took a shower and dressed.  By the time my cousin Barbara, her husband Herb, their daughter Larissa and Rissie’s two children arrived, I was just about ready.  They unpacked, put their cases in different rooms, and once more it was hugs and kisses time, with yet more laughter.  Having two little ones with us was a joy — watching a two-year-old and a one-year-old is always fun.  We traded holding Katie, the newest family member, though I admit we usually call her and refer to her as “Baby Girl.”  This was the first time I’d seen Katie, and I thoroughly enjoyed our meeting.  

Aunt Mildred left first, with some of her cousins, wanting to get to the site early and be sure everything was ready.  The rest of us weren’t much longer.  Aunt Jean and Kay and I went in Aunt Jean’s car; I drove us, along with our various contributions to lunch.  Barbara and her family went in their truck.

We drove up to the empty building that once housed a kindergarten, owned by friends but not yet sold.  Other cars and trucks were already there, and once we walked in the door, it was truly old-home week.  Some cousins I’d seen more recently, but some I hadn’t seen since Dad’s funeral.  Others I hadn’t seen in years.  

Food filled the entire kitchen counter/island; desserts filled another separate table.  Iced tea waited near ice-filled plastic cups.  

Aunt Mildred welcomed everybody, reminding us of just how long such reunions had been going on.  She thought over 50 years, but as she kept talking, one after another realized that actually it had to be over 70 or even 75 years, since she remembered attending it as a young child and she’s now 92.  

As our cousin Mike Richards was ready to give the blessing, Aunt Jean’s son Jim and his wife Dancie arrived from Houston.  We all stood as Mike gave thanks.  Then it was time to chow down.

So much good food always ends up on offer, and we always make our way through much of it.  Lots of photographs got taken — and over and over during the reunion one cousin after another talked to me about Dad, and how much they missed him.

Once you realize that most of the older folks there were his first cousins, and the rest were either their in-laws or children or grandchildren, you might begin to see just how much our gathering means to us.  Though we sometimes had to remind each other who we were, it didn’t take much.

Aunt Mildred wasn’t the oldest Richards grandchild there — her cousin Minnie V., at 97, claimed that.  Minnie V’s sister Blanche, nearly 91 (and my dad’s age, she reminded me), was next.  Their brother Carl wasn’t far behind.  There were younger Richards grandchildren– in their early 70s and mid-to-late 60s.  The next generation– the great-grandchildren– include me and my first cousins and our first cousins once removed (follow that?) — in our 50s and 60s, mostly.  There were a few a bit younger, like Larissa (great-great grandchildren) and then her children (great-great-great grandchildren).  

Lingering after lunch a bit, then cleaning up and re-packing cars, we slowly emptied the building.  Next year, we’ve decided, we’ll use a foam board to chart out the genealogies.

Back at the farm, we sat and visited even more.  After a while, Aunt Mildred, Mike and Sissy left, returning to their homes north of Fort Worth.  The rest of us actually ate.  Again.  

Once more in bed, I drifted off to sleep.  Sunday morning was time to visit a bit, repack our cars, clean up the house, and lock the door, leaving for our respective homes.

That’s when the grief hit, as I drove back the way I’d come.  It didn’t come in waves of tears or sobbing.  Instead, it was just the slow lowering of a darkness, the realization that Dad was truly gone and that this was yet another first without him.  After the first year without him, I guess I’d taken for granted that nothing like that would occur.  Clearly I was wrong.

From time to time I did cry a bit, but nothing more than a few tears.  And all this week, I’ve just hibernated, meeting friends for coffee occasionally, but not managing much else otherwise.  I haven’t written; nothing would really come.  I’d sit in front of the computer, stare at the screen, and get up without typing a word.  Why force it?  

Every day I’d get out, but that was about it.  No jewelry got made.  Nothing written in other projects than the blog.  I had a couple of appointments — the important one being the repairman who got my freezer and washer working correctly again (and only for $318!).  By Friday, I told myself that this was enough.  One more day, and then it was back to working at something.  At anything.  

Reading got me through the week — and a bit of television, though not much.  

Saturday morning, I got up and dressed.  With large diet Coke in hand, I went to a craft workshop and learned how to dye a silk scarf.  By 1, I was at a coffeeshop, waiting for my friend Betsy.  

I had a beautiful scarf to show from that workshop.  And I had the manuscript I’ve not looked at in three years printed out.  That afternoon I read through it in its entirety, pen in hand, making annotations, deciding what to move and where.  

On Sunday, I met my friend Myra, who worked on jewelry while I worked on the manuscript a second time, making additions and even more annotations.  When I left, I went grocery shopping, then drove home and unloaded everything.  While my dinner was cooking, I took out the garbage for today’s garbage pickup.

By seven, I’d eaten and then crawled into bed. I watched PBS for hours, reading a bit afterwards, finally falling asleep.  

This morning, I was up and dressed by 8.  There were phone calls to make, arrangements to be made for the dogs to go to the vet’s for heartworm preventative shots, information to get about insurance for the beach house (due in a few weeks).

By 9, I’d finished and was in my office.  I set up my kiln with the the temperature guide and a pyrometer, testing to see how fast it heated up and to what temperatures.  Once that was in progress, I turned to the computer and worked on the manuscript, transferring changes and additions to a new copy of the manuscript.  By one, I had finished the kiln temperature test, turned the kiln off, and completed sixteen chapters of the manuscript– and was heading to Starbucks for coffee with Betsy.  

Now I’ve written a blog entry.

Grief lingers still, but the darkness doesn’t.  

I’ve learned with experience that everyone deals with grief so differently, and that for myself, it’s sort of like I imagine surfing might be.  I’ll wipe out once and a while, but give me time.  I’ll be back on the board.  (In reality, I’d probably kill myself even attempting to surf, but as a child of the 60s, I like to dream about being able to surf.)

I’m back.  

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Traveling to the Past: Farm Livin’ on the Ware Farm

Today in a bit I’ll be heading to the Ware family farm.  My grandfather bought the land in parcels, ending up with just over 140 acres of East Texas red dirt.  He managed to keep it through the Depression.

The farmhouse we have today — the one I’ll be staying in tonight — was only built in 1939-40.  Dad moved into it as a high school senior.  Until then, the family had not had a house with electricity, running water, or plumbing.  Neither of the two wood houses they lived in prior to 1940 still exists, but we know where they were.  The first was quite primitive, with a packed dirt floor, as I recall Dad saying.

The house they moved into in 1940 had three regular bedrooms and one small room that held a 3/4 bed; it also had a living room, dining room, kitchen, and a bathroom.  Family stories about the bathroom are quite funny.  Granddad, it seems, wasn’t convinced that it was hygienic to have the toilet so close to the kitchen, but Grandmother (who one of my dad’s first cousins refers to as “a progressive woman,” was determined to have it.  She won.  The bathroom was built, adjacent to the kitchen.  But Granddad built an outhouse and, I understand, used it for a while before he gave in about hygiene.

That house ended with the bathroom and kitchen — both had doors leading to a small porch that stepped down to the backyard.  However, after Granddad sold timber in 1956 or so, he built on an enclosed back porch, a small room for storage, and one more bedroom, large enough to hold two double beds and a crib.  That back porch enclosed the well that we used for water.  Though the well was connected to an electric water pump, there were times when we had to haul water from it by hand.  Only in the 1990s did we get “city” water.  That’s kind of funny, in a way — we are five miles or so out of the “big” town of San Augustine, which has a population of maybe 2500 people.  Only in the 1970s or 80s  did we get connected to the gas main — until then we had a propane tank.

This is the house now:


The farm is very much in the country.  I tell people it’s in San Augustine, but that’s not quite true.  It’s in San Augustine County, but it’s not in town.  It’s five miles or so out of town, in a tiny community called Bland Lake.  It’s country, clearly:


There’s a lot of pasture land now, and our barn’s still standing.  Sort of:


Both my grandparents’ families were from this area.  The Wares came to this area in the 1830s, just before the Texas Revolution.  Some other ancestors on that same side came about the same time.  My grandmother Ware’s family, however, were relative newcomers — they moved to San Augustine in 1900, leaving Barbour County, Alabama, for an area that friends had already moved to, and wrote back about.

San Augustine and Nacogdoches, Texas, have an ongoing disagreement about which is the oldest settlement in Texas.  San Augustine is also known as the point of entry for the border area between it and Louisiana (known as No-Man’s Land).  The town is also known for feuds along the lines of the Hatfields-McCoys.  With a violent past, it had its last shootout in the 1930s, and my aunt and grandmother were in town when that happened.  The problem was considered serious enough that TWOTWO — Texas Rangers were sent in to take care of it.

Granddad farmed with a horse and mules.  Only when he sold the timber in 1956 did he buy a tractor — and a new truck — and build on to the house.  The main crop was cotton, of course.  He also grew corn and potatoes and watermelon.  I can remember helping to pick corn and get potatoes.  I also remember getting in trouble for plugging watermelons with my older boy cousins — until Granddad put a stop to it, sternly.  He sold most of them for cash, another source of income.

Grandmother had her “truck patch.”  Most farm wives did.  Hers was, at its peak, pretty large.  I remember going up and down rows of peas and butter beans and other vegetables, sweating, with my little bonnet on that she’d made.  She always wore her own bonnet, long sleeves, and gloves — ladies didn’t get tanned, even farm wives.  She also milked and gathered eggs.  I loved to help with that — though I couldn’t milk worth anything.  Gathering eggs was much easier, and feeding the chickens was a neat chore.

My grandmother didn’t have a washing machine until the 1950s — and we still have it.  It was a ringer-type washer, and I was always fascinated by it.  We don’t use it, of course — but it still sits in the shed.

Dad and his brother and sister helped out, as farm kids did, and they’d laugh as they told us what it was like to run barefoot on the hot dirt as they picked cotton.  They’d tell us about using a kerosene lamp to read and study by.

By the time I was born,  none of the three kids was on the farm.  Dad worked for Sun Oil Company and lived in Beaumont.  Uncle James worked for Sun Pipe Line and lived in Louisiana, though he ended up in Beaumont as well.  My Aunt Mildred lived in Fort Worth, where she and her husband and two boys lived; she’d moved up there during World War II to work in a war-related plant, as so many did.  None of the grandchildren ever lived there either.

Grandmother died in 1962; Granddad died a couple of years later.  Yet the farm remains in the family.  For Dad and his siblings, this was home.  For us grandkids, it’s not home, but it’s special.  We spent many hours roaming the pastures, playing in the ditches and barn, and wandering where we weren’t always supposed to be.  One of my earliest memories, in fact, is here — when Dad was in the hospital in Beaumont for goiter surgery, I was at the farm with my grandparents, and feeling very lonely.  I can remember lying in bed in the fireplace bedroom, looking out the window at the pasture, and crying.  Granddad came in to hum to me and comfort me.  I was, at the time, probably 3.  This view is close to what I remember, though it’s in daytime, not night:


Over the years, we’ve worked on making the house safe and comfortable.  We get together several times a year there, working on one project for three days or so each time.  It’s work time, but also family time.  We take turns being responsible for meals, and we sit around at night and talk a lot.  And laugh a lot, too.

Though it isn’t a working farm, we lease out pasture to a cousin’s husband; he runs cattle on it.  Since he’s there every day at least once, we are comfortable knowing that someone has an eye out for us.  If he doesn’t look at things, another cousin (who lives just down the road), drives by and keeps us informed of any activity, especially related to oil or gas-related lease information; he’s the county surveyor, too, as his dad (my dad’s first cousin) was.

It’s a small county, after all.

This weekend is the weekend of the Richards family reunion.  Grandmother Ware was a Richards; her father began the reunion tradition.  Until this year, it was always held on Labor Day weekend.  Now, we’ve moved it to October, when it’s a bit cooler.

There were, I think, 12 Richards children — my dad had something like 35 first cousins just from the Richards side.  Grandmother’s last sister died in 2010– at 104 1/2 — and she wasn’t the youngest.  Now the first cousins are the eldest, and I’m in “the younger generation” in their 60s.  Of course, there are a lot of our age- group’s children and even grandchildren by now.  It’ll be interesting to see how many turn out tomorrow; attendance numbers have fallen over the years.

When I hit the road in a bit, I’ll be driving for three hours or so, with one stop to rest my legs a bit.  I don’t take the same route we always traveled, though — that route takes me on two-land roads, twisting and turning through Louisiana and Texas.  Instead, I head up to North Louisiana to Many on a four-land road, much improved.  At Many, I take my break, then head west over Pendleton Bridge into East Texas, and finally take the two-lane road to San Augustine, out of it, past the small church and cemetery where Mother and Dad and Phil and other family members are buried, and then turn left on a farm-to-market road to the farm.  I’ll unload the food I’m bringing for tonight’s supper and for tomorrow’s reunion.  I’ll unload my small suitcase and put it in the fireplace bedroom that Dad always used.

It’s not that far, in miles, but it’s a long trip in memories and laughter and tears.  I can’t wait.

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