Monday, March 9, 2009

My Other Family

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.


  1. "Tus ojos son las ventanas de tu alma¨

    He knew with whom he was chatting.

  2. Leo, do you think so? The words made me squirm. I wasn't sure what in my soul he saw. At the time, I hardly knew what was there myself.

  3. God bless you Grandmere --and God bless your friend and her family, your second home.

    May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

  4. If you thought they were an ideal family, then that's what they were.
    We're always wiser with hindsight, but what matters is how people shaped us and how loved we felt by them.

  5. My friend is a great person herself. She's not given to speak ill of others at all. When the conversation goes in that direction, she goes silent.

    Erika, thanks be to God, there were ameliorations to the grimness of my home life.

  6. Wonderful tribute, Mimi: I have no doubts that that "feisty lady" (Hmmm, you are true to your Second Mother! *g*) appreciates it...

  7. JCF, I hope so. I know that I shall meet again with the mother and the father of this family, both of whom were so welcoming and generous to me.

    I was in tears at the end of writing the post.

  8. Grandmere, for a variety of reasons my home was less than ideal for me, my safe place (as I've shared) was at my Grandmother's house, and, yet, two of my younger sister's friends found respite from their stormy family dynamics in our family--in fact, Whitney is still seen as a 5th child all these years later. My two cousins found refuge from their parents, and Sarah in particular who no longer speaks to her parents, considers my folks to be their babies grandparents. I think it's a blessing when we are able to find what we need in our lives outside the often restrictive definition of a "nuclear family." Peace.

  9. What a loving tribute to those who meant so much to you! thanks for sharing this. Marilyn

  10. Renz, although my friends spent the night occasionally, I could never imagine anyone seeing my home as a refuge. We've talked before about our grandmothers. My maternal grandmother's house provided respite for me, too.

    I suppose that some homes are more dysfunctional than others, which may be why your cousins took refge in yours.

    Marilyn, thanks. The post started out as a story but turned into something of a tribute

  11. Gram, you've hinted at a situation far darker than what I may have dealt with, painful as it was for me; I didn't mean to suggest that all families could provide a shelter or refuge - just some. Whitney's father was bi-polar, at one point, cornering her and her brother in a closet with a gun...another household that wasn't a refuge for anyone. Just very glad that folks are sometimes able to find those safe places when they most need them.

  12. And, by the way, your blog is serving that purpose for me these days, a nice refuge from contentious debate - can you see me sitting in your big comfy cyber sofa?

  13. Thanks for all the refuges. Funny that my parents served in that way for many a young person -late teen and young adult -- but could not be that for us - we had our grandparents though - where we spent many summers. So many people would say to us later - your parents were so great to me- saved my life, etc -- you were so lucky- my brothers and I would just look at each other not knowing what to say.

  14. Renz, it was not as bad as your cousins' home, but it was bad. My father was a mean alcoholic, but there was no physical violence, just unrelenting verbal and emotional abuse of my mother and me and my two sisters.

    Settle in on my comfy cyber sofa. I can't do contentious debate for very long.

  15. Don't mind if I do - it's nice and cozy - with awesome company. Thank you.

  16. This is so deeply touching and I will not soon forget this story. You have written it with exceptional beauty and grace.

    Thank you Mimi.

  17. They were all very good friends and you were so lucky to have them. I think this more than makes up for the funeral, and I'm sure she would much prefer this to flowers.

  18. Ann, I'm smiling as I read your words. Thank God for grandparents! Your attitude toward your parents is a bit like my friend's toward her father, for she found him trying at times, and he certainly expected a great deal of his wife, which she thought was not quite fair.

    Thank you, Fran and Counterlight. Sometimes God sends angels to minister to us in time of need.

  19. Beautiful tribute to a loved one.

    When my mother died, a dear friend was unable to attend her funeral but her friend wrote a column for our hometown newspaper. She wrote a beautiful tribute to my mother and I cherished it. That was more than 30 years ago. My mother and her friend are both gone but I still have the beautiful remembrance. I'm sure that your blog will be very meaningful to your friends.

  20. And a beautiful, touching account it is, Grandmere. Reminds me of the many "extra" brothers and sisters I gained in my life because of the generosity of spirit of my mom and dad, who seemed to be mom and dad for many of my and my brothers' friends.
    Prayers of peace to you and your friend on the loss of a mother.

  21. ahem....Fr. Jake is up again...see my blog......

  22. We constantly ran off my twin-sister and I... under the chicken net, as it was...

    Somehow we always found people who were loving, took us in, gave us food and so on.

    Not that we actually lacked food in the house...

    In the weeks that passed in between the excursions we had our Grandparents place, 15 minutes' walk away...

    Normal families are sometimes not ideal, not even normal ;=)

  23. This was wonderful to read.

    I hope I can make my home as welcoming, some day.

  24. Thank you all. It was healing for me to write the story.

    We always seemed to have a lot of kids around and spending the night at our house when my children were growing up. I drew the line once when my college-age son gave our key to one of his friends in the wee hours of the morning. "Oh, no! That won't do. They have to come home with you in the wee hours of the morning."


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