Family Ties: Someone’s Favorite

I’ve been decorating my home for Christmas and I keep finding special things that remind me of my Aunt Polly: an engraved ornament, my blue porcelain angels, woodland birds. On Saturday evenings when my husband and I watch movies, I work on my crewel embroidery pillow and remember how she taught me the stitches when I was a senior in high school. Later she gave me the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Needlework and wrote in her artful script, “To Connie Riddle with lots, and lots of Love.”

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Polly in our farmhouse kitchen around 1966

While Polly never told me I was her favorite, as every child hopes they are, I always felt a connection to her because she ‘got me’ and I ‘got her.’ Her attention toward me made me feel special– a great thing when you’re growing up and going through the ups-and-downs of figuring out who you are. How reinforcing to feel that you have someone’s favor.

When I was a girl, Polly told me about visiting the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. I felt like I was there when she described the snow-capped mountains and the open space. I’d seen those vistas in Westerns and imagined myself as one of those cowgirls riding a horse. Years later, as a ‘girl’ of  fifty-six, I took my solo journey to Wyoming chasing that dream that had started with Polly. I rode a huge horse named Tequila on a trail ride in the Grand Teton National Park. How I felt Polly’s spirit with me in that place.

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Remembering Polly’s descripton of the Tetons and feeling her presence

My memories of Polly are strong, especially during the Christmas season. Last year, I was feeling the same way and wrote a post, Polly’s Gift. I’d love for you to read it and get to know more about her.  I’ll end this post early in hopes that you’ll read on about Polly and her painting that hangs on the wall in my kitchen every December.

Polly’s Gift

 

How About You?

Is there a family member or another person who has treated you as if you’re a favorite?

What were things they did that communicated that you had a special bond?

How did their favor on you impact your life?

Do you have that type of relationship with a  niece or nephew or some other person?

 

Celebrating a Life

Today I’m remembering a solo journey I took back in 2009 to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My desire was to visit the place that had been significant for my mother. She and her  cousin, Yvonne traveled there by train when they were both nineteen to prepare for work in WWII as civil servants.

Throughout my childhood, Mama told stories of their adventures in Harrisburg. It was the first time those two farm girls had been outside of North Carolina. They returned to work at Pope Air Base, living on site and enjoying the lively community that included handsome soldiers. It was quite a change from rural Harnett County.

Before I left on my trip to Harrisburg, I took Mama to see Yvonne. At that time, they were both still living in their homes. We sat at Yvonne’s dining table and shared a meal of chicken and biscuits and I told them about my plan.

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Yvonne Gilchrist Casto (sitting) and Mama, Mary Smith Rosser

While Yvonne had more physical problems than Mama, Yvonne was mentally sharp. Mama was in the early phase of dementia and understood that I was going to Harrisburg, but had a hard time recalling the specifics of living there. I felt an urgency to go then because I wanted her to be able to enjoy some of what I discovered while she could still savor those memories with Yvonne.

“We lived on McClay street. I hope you can find the house where we rented a room from the Flutes,” Yvonne told me.

Later, she shared one of their familiar stories. She was a clever prankster and often seemed to be the ‘set-up’ person while Mama took the bait. They were a real duo.

When I arrived in Harrisburg, I took pictures along the path by the Susquehanna River, remembering what an impression it made on Mama that frigid January day when they arrived. Mama would often say, “That river was frozen solid.” It would have been a real contrast to their partially-frozen farm pond in central North Carolina, which she would have be warned to stay away from when she was a girl.

While I walked along the streets abutting McClay and visited the Capitol where they’d had their photo taken, I imagined Mama and Yvonne, nineteen years old, the young women in the photo coming to life.

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(L to R) Yvonne, their new friend, Mary Willis, and Mama, Mary Rosser at PA Capitol 1943

I tried but couldn’t find the training site. When I returned with my pictures, they listened in rapt attention as I told them what I saw and ways the city had changed since 1943.

Mama and Yvonne remained close over the years. We often said they were more like sisters and best friends than merely cousins.

How they loved each other’s company, able to finish each other’s stories from their time together as young women starting out in the world. After the war ended and they finished working at Pope Field, they went to Kansas City, Missouri to work for the airlines. While there, Yvonne met her husband, Bill and eventually moved with him to California.

Years later, we received the tragic news that Bill had been diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea/Huntington’s Disease, a fatal genetic disorder (https://hdsa.org/what-is-hd/). He lost his job as a NASA contractor due to the  changes in his functioning caused by the break down of nerve cells in his brain. Yvonne and Bill, along with their six-year-old daughter, Kim moved back to North Carolina. Mama was heartbroken for Yvonne and was supportive of her through the eighteen years of Bill’s decline and eventual long-term care and then death. During that time, Yvonne was there for Mama when Daddy died suddenly from a heart attack.

As widows, they’d often visit each other and take trips to see friends and family that lived both nearby and faraway. They enjoyed each other’s company, often telling their stories from Harrisburg and Pope Field like a well-rehearsed tag team. We enjoyed watching them.

Eventually Yvonne’s diabetes and other physical problems, and Mama’s dementia led to both of them going to live in nursing centers. As long as they were able, we still tried to take them to see one another. When they were no longer able to visit, Yvonne would ask Kim about Mama, and Mama would smile when we’d tell her news of Yvonne. They were separated but we felt their spirits remained together.

Today I remember Yvonne because tomorrow I will attend her memorial service. She passed away last week in her nursing home thirty miles from Mama’s. Yvonne had just turned 95 on November 1st, catching up with her cousin who’d turned 95 in July.

For Mama and Yvonne, their strong cousin bond, shared adventures as young women, and support for one another, lasted a lifetime.

What a testament of  kinship, friendship, and loyalty pursurvering through the good and difficult times of life. What a priviledge to have learned from watching them.

Tomorrow we will celebrate Yvonne. Mama doesn’t know that her cousin is no longer living. She is spared from that grief by her dementia, so we daughters will go in Mama’s stead, supporting Kim, our cousin, as we honor the life of her incredible mother.

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How About You?

Have you ever made a journey to discover more about a person you loved?

What did you learn about that person?  What did you learn about yourself?

Second Chance to Know You

It was 1966 and he was home on leave for Thanksgiving.  My cousin, Danny and my Grandma Smith hold his fresh catch from her farm pond.  He’d just completed boot camp and was ready to serve on the USS Cacapon docked in Long Beach, California.  I was an eleven-year-old kid looking up to my twenty-two-year old cousin.  Now, fifty-one-years later, I have a second chance to know him.

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We meet every year on Veteran’s Day at Raven Rock State Park in Harnett County –within five miles of where our Grandma Smith had lived.  This tradition started years ago after we discovered our common interest in hiking.  Prior to that, I’d only spent time with him when he or his family would come by our home or we were at a gathering at Grandma Smith’s.  I liked his sense of humor and always found him easy to talk with– especially for a guy.  Must have been because he was a middle child, too, with an older and younger sister, like me.

Now we take the Campbell Loop trail that’ll be five miles into the hardwood forest.  The path follows a stream that flows into the Cape Fear River.  Over the years we’ve developed a familiar pattern of steady walking with stops to admire the natural wonder around us: light through the leaves, the way the water has carved the rock, fallen trees like sculpture over the stream.  Along the way, we talk everything from news of our families, to politics, to issues of faith.

Sometimes we go back to memories of our teenage years.  I love hearing his stories about a girl he liked, the male perspective I’d missed by not having brothers.  Danny listens to my account of boys I chased that lived just down the road from Raven Rock in the Boone Trail community.  I wish he’d been around then to give me advice.

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Danny’s turn to lead

We go at a comfortable pace, walking through our topics.  At the end of our hike, I’m rewarded by Danny cooking lunch for me over his hibachi.  He’d insisted on this and asked that I just bring carrots.  He’d brought fillet mignon, shrimp, tossed salad, and cold adult beverages.
We sit and wait for the coals to burn down.  I can see Grandma Smith in the way he listens, then thoughtfully responds.  Danny’s blue-gray eyes and profile remind me of her.  I’ve been fortunate to be able to get to know him in adulthood as I could not when I was a child.  It’s given me a deeper knowledge of my family and of myself.
I remember several years ago when I was planning my solo journey.  There was another cousin I wanted to know better.  I’d seen from spending time with Danny how it had enriched our lives.  I planned my trip to Michigan by way of Toledo and visited my cousin, Shirley.  (see post– Distant Cousins). Like my time with Danny, I made new discoveries that helped me to know her, and myself, better.
I’m hungry after our long walk and the grilled shrimp and steak are the perfect meal.  It’s nice to feel taken care of by my older cousin, like the big brother that I’d always wanted.
When we pack up to leave, the sun is slanting it’s golden afternoon light on the trees.  I have a feeling of fullness and satisfaction, not just from our delicious lunch but from the day that has been well- spent.  Once again we’ve deepened our bond that has carried us through the years and will into the future.  I’m grateful that I’ve had this second chance to know him.
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Me and Danny on Veteran’s Day Hike

See more photos at my Author Facebook page– Saved by Sedona
 
What about you?
Have you had someone that you’ve been able to get to know more fully at a later time in your life?
How has that experience changed you?

Distant Cousins

As I grow older, with time passing rapidly and the future pressing in, I feel a need to reconnect with my extended family.  It’s like I want a second chance to know them.  Since my mother and father were both from families of eight children, I have lots of cousins.  One cousin I’ve wanted to spend more time with is Shirley.

When we were young, her family lived in New Jersey.  They would come down to see us at the ‘homeplace’ in North Carolina, where Shirley’s mother and my father, sister and brother, had grown up.  I was raised on that farm, and as a child was so excited when Daddy’s siblings and their families visited.  I’d missed that as I’d grown up and moved away.

Several years ago, Shirley came down for a brief stay.  Although she’s ten years older than me, we got along well and seemed to have common interests.  She had an easy, gracious manner and invited me to visit her and her husband in Toledo, Ohio.  I decided to take that road trip to Michigan that I’d been thinking about and go by Shirley’s.

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After a long, tiring day of driving by myself, she and her husband, Bart, greeted me—along with their vivacious puppy, Greta.  We sat in the cool comfort of their living room, enjoying a leisurely conversation– the way I remembered visits in childhood before life became so hectic.  That evening they drove me around Toledo and took me to their favorite Greek restaurant, eager to show me a good time.

The next morning, Shirley and I sat for hours on her screened porch, drinking coffee and comparing notes on our separate lives.  We soon discovered that our families had labeled us as having traits of our unmarried Aunt Polly.

“Yeah, they called me ‘particular’ and said I was like her,” Shirley told me.

That was an easy conversation for me to imagine.

“I heard the same thing ten years later.  Told me I might not find a husband if I kept being so picky– like Polly.”

We agreed this label was a complement; being like our loving aunt who appreciated art, was an avid reader, and had a creative spirit.

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Polly cooking in the farmhouse kitchen

We finally ended our conversation on the porch to leave for lunch with Shirley’s friend, Kelly at the Toledo Art Gallery.  That afternoon we shopped in Perrysburg.  It was a fun outing with my cousin showing me her favorite spots, seeing her life that I’d only known from a distance.

For the remainder of my visit, we’d launch into a conversation of discovery, each one asking for clarification of a family event.

“I remember y’all visiting at Easter when I was six.  You went ‘uptown’ that Saturday and bought some 45s.  I wanted to be a teenager like you.”  I could hear that record playing over and over, maybe Dell Shannon’s “Runnaway” that was on Billboard’s Top 10 in April of 1961.  Shirley thought that was accurate and remembered how she and her younger sister, Polly—who was actually named after Aunt Polly but less like her than Shirley, thought it was fun to visit us in Sanford.  That surprised me since I thought it would seem so small town to them.

When it was time for me to leave, I hated for our visit to end.  I liked hearing her perspective on life in her family and her impressions of mine.  It was nice to discover how we shared an identity with our Aunt Polly, and now with each other.

If I hadn’t taken the time to include the visit with Shirley, I would’ve missed an opportunity to see how we fit into our Rosser family.  I came away knowing more of myself by having a second chance to know my cousin.

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Connie and Shirley shopping in Perrysburg

What about you?

Is there a family member you’d like a second chance to know?

What steps could you take to make that happen?