It has been said that the difference between friends and relatives is that you can pick your friends.† Relatives on the other hand; well that is surely the pick of the lottery there.† You roll the dice, and hope you end up with a decent bunch.† Just remember that if you donít know any of your relatives that are crazy, then you must be the one they all talk about at Thanksgiving.
Momís side of the family was fairly simple.† She only had one sister, and until I was in high school that was all I knew of her side of the family.† My grandpa on her side died when I was little; I mentioned before that I only have a single memory of him.† My grandma had a stroke and went into a nursing home when I was in junior high; she lived several more years there, slowly deteriorating to the point where she couldnít remember my mom at all, and recognized dad simply because she so hated his mustache.† By the time she finally died, I felt it was more of a relief for mom than sadness Ė the pain of watching her go slowly over the years at last finally ended for her.
My Aunt Jean turned 80 last year.† She was always a bit of a different bird.† She worked for the phone company for something like eighteen and a half before quitting to become a teacher.† Then she taught for another seventeen years or so.† Two full careers, neither of which she stayed in long enough to get full retirement.† One of the big shocks of my life came one afternoon when we were taking her to dinner.† We ran into a man and she started talking to him, and Dad told me that it was her ex-husband!† I had never known that she was married Ė my spinster aunt wasnít quite the spinster after all.† But as long as I have known her, she has preferred her little dogs over people anyway Ė especially those little French poodles.† What I liked about her for a long time was she would travel all over the world, and every Christmas would then bring back exotic gifts from across the globe.† One year I got a Kabuki doll from Japan, another year an authentic boomerang from the Australian outback.
I finally met a few more distant relatives of my moms the summer before my freshmen year of high school.† We drove back for their first family reunion.† Back in the days when Roots was popular, they had actually traced our family tree. †It turns out that I can trace my roots back to the original 1790 census of the brand new United States of America, and back across the Atlantic to where I was a long, long, long lost descendant of Prince John of England.† Not the made up one in Robin Hood, but the real one he was based on, who signed the Magna Carta and gave away the power of the English monarchy to parliament.† This is why to this day no heir to the English throne will ever be named John.†† Not only that, but somewhere along the way Iím a distant cousin to honest Abe Lincoln, which is also kind of cool.
But it was weird to meet Ďrelativesí Ė who end up being so far distant that we could legally marry many times over without a second thought.† The reunion was based on that original 1790 census, and the four brothers who were sons of the couple in it.† In fact, I was four generations removed from the family name they were celebrating (I had a name tag that listed me as the great-great-grandson of Henrietta Newlan Ė and thus my connection to the family).† We stayed with some of Momís cousins in Illinois, who didnít believe in a little thing called air conditioning; so Dad and I took off a bit early to see his brother and let mom and Aunt Jean enjoy their cousins for a few extra days.
Now before I go on, Iíd be completely remiss if I didnít tell the story of driving with my Aunt on that trip.† Mom, Dad and I were in his new truck; so new in fact that he didnít have a camper top for it yet.† Instead he had made a cover for it out of plywood Ė which then proceeded to catch a breeze over Kansas and go sailing across some poor farmerís wheat field like Dorothy in her house on the way to Oz.† Aunt Jean was driving her car, and Mom and I took turns riding with her.† One afternoon it was my turn, so I was navigating, trying to get the best route across the state to where we were staying.† I donít remember which state it was exactly Ė maybe Missouri, maybe Illinois.† But I plotted a nice, straight interstate course to the hotel.† It was obvious on the map that it was the shortest distance to where we were going.† Sure you could go up and over, like Mom and Dad did, but that was so far out of the way.† Of course, that route avoided going through a fairly decent sized city right about 5:00 pm on a weekday.† I was fourteen, and grew up in a small town that was nearly two hours from the nearest interstate; I had no idea at all about this thing called rush hour, and traffic jams, and the pain of driving through a city when every single person living within a hundred miles of it decides they want to hit the road just to block some poor old lady and her nephew for two whole hours of bumper to bumper traffic.† Yes, we got to the hotel, about an hour and a half after Mom and Dad.† But hey, we saved about 30 miles off of their route!† We are actually planning a trip with my parents after Christmas to meet up with Margaret and her family, and I have no doubt that sometime during that six hour drive their or back my fourteen year old skills at navigation will once again be brought forth to share with everyone for a nice laugh.
I enjoyed the chances I had to spend time with Dad.† Iíll always remember Effingham Illinois simply because it was a good place to stop and we stayed there twice, once with the women and once without.† Staying without air conditioning was making everyone cranky, so we took off.† Effingham turned out to be only about an hour down the road, and we really didnít have any place to be, so we stopped, took in a movie and enjoyed ourselves.† The next day we drove to St. Louis to see Uncle Leo; but he was fighting with his wife, so instead of spending the night we stayed for a few hours and took off again.† Dad is great about people that way, he is always comfortable talking to anybody, and always seems to know what to do next.† He has it all planned out right from the beginning.
Where Mom grew up in a small family, Dad was the youngest of nine children in his.† His father died the year before Margaret was born, so I never had the chance to know him at all.† His mom simply lived too far away, and I only remember visiting her a few of times.†† Dad always liked to say that he wanted a thousand miles between him and his relatives Ė far enough that they couldnít just drop in without notice, but close enough to visit once a year or so if you wanted.† Of course, now that his grandchildren are that far away, I think he might want to revise that idea a bit.
The year we went back for Momís family reunion was also the year of the first Carter family reunion.† This one was based on my grandma and grandpa Ė so I was cousin to EVERYBODY.† That year I believe all but four of the grandchildren came back; and two of the ones who didnít were my sisters.† Things have changed a bit in the twenty eight years or so since then.† For one, it has now become an annual event, and now Dad is the patriarch of the family as he is the last of the children left.† The little kids I remember as a teenager all now have kids of their own, as do I, and while Iím the youngest of the grandchildren, the oldest one is only a few weeks younger than Dad, so my generation in the family is starting to retire as well.† We have tried to make it back for a few of these recently; it is nice to see some of my cousins once in a while, even though Iím really not close to any of them now.† We were a thousand miles away.† Except for Allen and Shirley.
There was something magnetic about my cousin.† Born Francis Allen Carter, he, like me and my father, disliked his name.† So Dad goes by C Joe, and he went by F. Allen, or just Allen.† While we had my aunt close by on my momís side, Allen and Shirley came to go to school at Adams State after he got back from Viet Nam, and then moved to New Mexico.† That was only about a four hour drive, so we saw them a lot.† It was very common when we had a three or four day weekend for us to drive down to see them, and even take just a Saturday and meet them half-way for dinner in Trinidad.† Shirley Jean was his wife, and they adopted a daughter, Christie Joe, the year we went to Alabama, and I wasnít allowed near the baby that Christmas because I had a cold.
Allen taught high school English, and was in charge of the newspaper and yearbook for the school.† But he was a trader at heart.† It seems that was a very common trait among the Carters Ė they all were traders.† Unfortunately, Dad loved it, but wasnít very good at it.† He passed down part of that to me, the not being good at it part.† The love kind of stayed with him and my cousins.† Allen had some allergies, and had to go over to Amarillo Texas to see the allergist about them.† They took some samples and then wanted him to come back in a few hours.† It was just far enough away that if he went home, he would have just enough time to turn around and come back, so he went exploring.
I donít remember the name of the place he found, but it was basically a huge junk store.† The owner would buy up wrecked train cars of goods, and sell them cheap.† Allen instantly fell in love with the place.† One Thanksgiving when we were down there he took my Dad and I over to see it.† I had no idea what was going on while Allen kept talking to the owner, but after a while they shook hands, and we headed over to a truck with a huge fifth wheel trailer on it.† I couldnít believe it Ė Allen had just traded his truck to this guy (or at least borrowed it for a while), and bought a semi load of caulking compound Ė you know Ė the stuff you put around windows and seal cracks with.† (I admit, when telling the story out loud instead of writing, it comes across much funnier when I say he bought a truck full of caulk).† He had something like 200 cases of the stuff.† And on the way home he sees a construction site, stops, and sells ten cases right out of the back.
Northern New Mexico still gets plenty cold in the winter, and that was the only thing he was worried about (because if your caulk freezes then it just doesnít hold up any more), so he called a friend of his and basically borrowed her house to store the caulk.† We spent half the night unloading case after case of caulk into her spare bedroom, garage and basement.†
Oh, and he has ten gross of plastic porcupine dog toys, the kind with the little squeaker in them.† Those kept showing up as gag gifts in the family for years.† Allen did great with that deal, and just kept expanding.† From caulk to pool tables, to a bicycle shop (or the inventory from it), to Ironwood carvings from Mexico, and finally to diamonds and gold, he just kept making bigger and better deals. He finally became the family jeweler, and I bought my wedding rings for my first marriage from him.
It was the diamonds that did him in; he was working commission on the weekends in an Amarillo jewelry store that some young punks decided to rob.† He fought with the gunman, and while everyone else managed to get out of the store while he struggled with him, he took a bullet in the face for it.† That was twelve years ago, and there are times it seems that the family still hasnít recovered from it.† His funeral was the first time my parents, my sisters and I were all together since I moved to Ohio five years before.† The small town he lived in basically shut down for the service Ė the church, the hall and the attached school all were packed to overflowing, standing room only.† I had to leave the service early to catch my flight back; a friend of the family I had never met gave me a ride.† The town was deserted as we left Ė everyone was at the funeral, and they were even broadcasting it on the local radio.
Since Allen died, Iíve learned a bit more about him, and found that many of my youthful impressions of him didnít truly hold up.† But he did touch many lives, and is still missed.† Iíll always remember one of my conversations with him, after unloading that truckload of caulk, as he let me have one beer (while he and Dad had plenty more).† He asked me if I knew what it was that a man needed a woman for.† I responded as expected, saying sex.† He said no, you can always take care of that yourself.† There is only one thing you ever need a woman for, and that is warmth.
That has always stuck with me.† Amazing word there Ė warmth.† It encompasses so much:† family, security, love, trust.† Like a fire, glowing beneath the mantle of a home filled with love.† He truly provided warmth for his family, and the entire town around him.† Iíll always miss him.