As many of you know, the family of my childhood and youth was seriously dysfunctional. Were it not for my extended family, grandparents and aunts, we would have sunk under the weight of adversity. I won't go into detail about all that again, but there was another family that meant a great deal to me during my high school years.
The family of one of my best friends, whom I talked to on the phone just last night, was like a second family to me. There were seven of them, five children and mother and father, and for various periods, one or another of the grandmothers living in. I loved them and they must have loved me, because they certainly let me hang around a lot. The truth is that if it could have been arranged between my parents and them, I would have gladly moved in with them.
My friend's mother was a devout Catholic convert. She went to 6:30 mass every morning and somehow managed to prepare a hot breakfast for the tribe, which often included me. She was a wonderful cook and made some of the best biscuits, pies, and cobblers that I've ever eaten in my life. All her cooking was excellent. I don't ever remember having a bad meal at her house. She cared for her husband and children, kept house, sewed, and kept the family business sideline going. The father was an accountant and worked at a day job, but he and his wife ran an accounting and tax business from their home. They had closed in their back porch and installed a huge key punch machine to do the accounting and tax work. This was in the 1950s, and the machine was, as I understand it, a specimen of early computer-like technology.
The father of the family was trying to learn Spanish, and I had studied Spanish in high school, so he spoke primitive Spanish to me, and, in my lame way, I tried to respond. His family was not at all interested in the Spanish language and were pretty much bored with his attempts to show off his skills for them, so I believe he was pleased to have someone respond. One of his favorite sayings to me, which I have never forgotten, was, "Tus ojos son las ventanas de tu alma," which I found a little disturbing. After all, what teenage girl wants an adult to be able to see into her soul?
The family had only one bathroom in their house, so you can imagine the line waiting to use the facilities, with someone often calling to whoever was in the room to hurry. If you passed in the hallway outside the bathroom when it was occupied by the father, you'd often hear him practicing trilling the Spanish "R". The family included three boys after my friend, all of whom were great teasers, and then, after several years, another baby girl. The father loved to tease, too, so it was a lively and laugh-filled household.
When they moved to their larger house, still with only one bathroom, I helped them remove the stain from the woodwork in the house, because they wanted to paint it, but, because of my impatience and poor skills, I'm afraid I gouged off more wood than stain with the paint scraper.
The father was a great lover of poetry, and he sometimes disciplined his children by making them learn verses of poetry. I see that as a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, the children committed a good bit of poetry to memory. On the other hand, the discipline may have put them off poetry, because it was associated with punishment. I thought it was kind of cool, because it seemed that I would not have considered it much of a punishment.
I remember that one night, my friend and I were double-dating, and when we went to her house to pick her up, she had not learned her poetry. Her father would not let her go out on her date until she had learned her verses, and she was terribly embarrassed to have us waiting around while she memorized her poetry.
My friend would invite me over after school. We'd do our homework, and then supper time would come, so she'd say, "Why don't you stay for supper?" and her mother would second the invitation. Then after supper, she'd say, "You might as well spend the night," which invitation her mother and father would second, and so I would. If the next day was a school day, I'd have to borrow a blouse from my friend. We wore white, long-sleeved blouses, even in the heat of our so-called spring and fall seasons, and navy pleated skirts. I'd wear my same skirt and the same bra and slip again (bras and slips don't get that soiled), and if the outside of my socks were dirty, I'd turn them inside out so the dirt wouldn't be visible. I was thinking the other day about underpants, and I don't remember what I did about them. Maybe I borrowed my friend's, or maybe I turned them inside out, too! Sometimes, but not often, one night would stretch into two nights.
The ritual before going to bed was for the family, and whoever else was there, to gather on the bed or on the floor in the parents bedroom to say the rosary.
My friend's mother lived until age 99, and she remained a feisty and independent woman, although she lost much of her vision. She loved to read, but once she no longer could, she listened to recordings of books, which the state library supplied by mail.
She lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast then and lost her home in Katrina, but stayed serenely with her son who lived on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain until her death, for she did not live to move into the new house that she would have shared with her daughter, my friend. Her funeral was in Mississippi, and Grandpère was out of town at the time. Since I am phobic about driving on unfamiliar highways, I did not go to her funeral, and that broke my heart, for she was like another mother to me, and I loved her very much. Grandpère came to love her, too, for whenever we went to the Alabama or Florida beaches, we always stopped to see her on the way. I sent flowers, but they never arrived at the funeral home, so there was nothing of me there but my prayers and my love. My friend was kind and understanding about my absence, but I still grieve that I could not be there.
As I saw them, they were an ideal family, but I realize today, that all was not perfect. It never is, but they meant a great deal to me at a difficult time of my life. I feel a little heartsease about missing the funeral, for I see this account as something of a tribute to a great lady.