Monday, May 14, 2012

Reflections

It's a law office now but this building housed
the public library where I checked out
my first romance novel.
For the past week, I've been on a journey.  Along with my sister-in-law and one of my brothers, I traveled from my home in South Carolina to northern Indiana (where another brother lives) then on to southern Michigan (where yet another brother lives in the small town where we grew up).  It's been a reflective journey, as trips home sometimes are, especially when they are precipitated by sad events, but it's been a journey of celebration, joy and re-connection as well.  Some random thoughts from the past seven days...

God puts people in our path for a reason.  My stepmom was a wonderful woman; a smart, funny, kind woman who loved my dad deeply.  She brought joy and laughter back into his life, welcomed the five of us kids as if we were her own and blended her children, grandchildren and great-children into our family as if we had always been meant to be a unit.  She and my dad showed us that sometimes we get a second chance at love and, no matter our age, we should not fear reaching for it.  She died two weeks ago.  We feel the loss of her life keenly but we cherish the memories she left us.  

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  My small hometown has suffered a great deal over the past several years.  The economic downturn has left its mark in failed businesses and rundown buildings but some traditions remain solid.  School and recreational sporting events still draw large, supportive crowds, the local hardware store still sports a Radio Flyer wagon in its window and the fire department still blows the fire whistle at Noon and 6pm.  It's been a long time since I lived there but each time the fire whistle blew, or a train rumbled through town, I closed my eyes and was transported back in time to my childhood.  The town may have changed but the sounds remain the same.


Nothing says "Good Morning" like good coffee and good friends.  Another iconic fixture of small town America still going strong in my hometown is the diner where locals gather over coffee each morning to discuss the events of the day:  how the weather will affect the crops, what politicians are going to do about the economy, what fish are biting in the lake and whether or not the Cubs (or Tigers) have a shot at this year's pennant.  The Sidetrack Cafe (so named because it sits next to the railroad tracks) is small, worn and probably hasn't had a face lift since it was known as the Midget 45 years ago but it still serves up the best coffee, breakfast and gossip in the area.  Eating there each morning was a bit surreal, however.  It was as if, since the diner hadn't changed, I expected the patrons to be the same too.  I spent my first twenty years in that town.  The population was about 1800 and I probably knew at least 80% of the people who lived there but, for three days, as I sipped coffee, savored breakfast and strolled Main Street, I didn't see a single familiar face.  Do you think the fact that, in my mind, I was visualizing people as they looked 40 years ago may have had something to do with it?

Nobody knows you like your family.  Both of my parents came from large families and I still have a boatload of cousins living in southern Michigan.  Last Thursday, my brother sent out a Facebook invitation to Saturday lunch in our hometown for anybody who was available and wanted to come.  Twenty-two arrived with open arms, wide smiles and plenty of embarrassing stories to tell. Some of them have very good memories! lol!  While I keep in touch with some of my cousins through Facebook and have seen others at events over the years, there are a few who I haven't seen or had contact with in more than thirty years yet we picked up the threads of conversation as easily as if we'd just seen one another last month.

There are many definitions of family.  Our childhood home was on a lake and we were one of only a handful of year-round residents on our street.  Most of the homes were owned by people from Chicago with mothers and children who arrived on Memorial Day and left on Labor Day and husbands who joined them on weekends.  We were particularly close to one summer family who owned the house across the street from ours.  For as long as I can remember (I was four when we moved to the lake), they've been a part of my life.


The street where I grew up.
The dad and mom were always "Uncle Bill and Aunt Dorothy" and she's always affectionately called us "those Colman Kids." Regardless of having no blood connection, we have always been family and no matter how many years pass between visits, every time we come together we're all transported back to those idyllic summers of our youth at the lake when my brothers trailed after her husband and sons like eager puppies and her daughter introduced me to the delights of reading romance.   We took a chance last weekend and drove out to our old neighborhood with the hope that Dorothy, now a spry 91 years old,  might be there.  She was!  Walking into her cottage was like stepping back in time.  It still smells the same; still has that same warm, welcoming feel that kept us coming back day after day, year after year.  While the hometown may have changed and the house we grew up in barely resembles the house we knew, walking into the cottage and Dorothy's arms was coming home.  By the way, the book she's currently reading?  Johanna Lindsey's The Devil Who Tamed Her!


Grandma
You can't outrun genetics.  My aunt is the keeper of some precious pieces of my dad's family history; photos of my grandmother (my dad's mom) as well as ancestors who I never had the opportunity to meet.  As I was gazing at a photo taken of my dad's mother when she was a child, it struck me.  I could have been looking at a photo of myself!  The eyes?  The mouth?  The nose?  All mine.  I mentioned this revelation as my brothers, sister-in-law  and I were visiting with my aunt and they all looked at me like I was nuts.  Apparently, I'm the only one who didn't know I look like Grandma!


Don't wait until tomorrow to tell people you love them.  With our busy lives and many responsibilities, we sometimes forget to tell people how much they mean to us.  Sometimes this message has to be reinforced as has been the case during the past few weeks.  The original reason for our trip north was the news that my aunt and uncle (my dad's sister and brother) are in poor health.  They and my uncle's wife (who may not be related by blood but is my beloved aunt in every other way) are the only ones still alive from my mom and dad's generation and I love them dearly.  Seeing them this past week has brought home very clearly the reality that we only have a limited amount of time on Earth and we never know when that time will come to an end.  Spending time with them and with three of my brothers has made me remember how precious each day is and how important it is to tell those people close to us that we love them.  It has reminded me not to take time or family or friends for granted but to treasure them and let them know they are treasured.

Where did you grow up?  Do you still live there?  If not, have you been back to visit?  Did you find yourself looking for the faces you shared freshman English with instead of the people they are today?  Do you resemble any of your ancestors?  Have you always known which one or, like me, was it a recent discovery?  


~PJ

31 comments:

  1. What a lovely blog you've done today PJ., and especially poingant on this Mother's Day. Yes you do look like your grandmother (I love that picture!) and so do I! There are four children in my family. Two boys, two girls. The younger of my 2 brothers and I take after our mom's side of the family, while my sister and other brother are definetlty from my dad's gene pool. Genetics are amazing. They hold our connections to the past and our hopes for the future.

    It's good to have you back!

    Flora

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    1. "Genetics are amazing. They hold our connections to the past and our hopes for the future. "

      What a lovely way to put it! Thanks for the welcome back, Flora. It's good to be home. :)

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  2. Wow PJ! I dont have any cool photos or info of my family tree but seeing stories like yours always make me pine for it. I kind of grew up on my own and moved a lot, so yeah...not a lot of close family or community in my background. But I'm fascinated by the tv shows like "Finding Your Roots" with Dr Gates on PBS and "Who Do You Think You Are" where celebs explore their family history and genetic/DNA origins. Dr Gates and his show use a company to do the DNA test called 23andMe https://www.23andme.com/
    . It gives a breakdown of your makeup and even health issues you might be genetically prone to, and sometimes finding relatives! I'm asking my bf for it as my next bday or holiday present cuz it's so cool:)

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    1. Bella, I feel very fortunate to have had a large, close family surrounding me as I grew up.

      I'd love to research my family beyond the few generations worth of information that I have. Our last name was changed at one point and it would be fascinating to know how that came about and where we were before then. Every time I watch "Who Do You Think You Are" I get the itch to go digging. ;-)

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  3. Hi PJ,

    I remember you mentioned you grew up in Michigan. When I read your blog this morning, I smiled at the coincidence... I just got home from a weekend where I was back in the area where I grew up. I grew up in southern Ohio. The smallish town called Middletown, although I consider greater Cincinnati my "stomping ground."

    It was Cincinnati that I returned to over the weekend. I drove down for a workshop (great by-the-way) through the Ohio Valley RWA chapter. It was in a part of Cincinnati that I used to go to with my mom. There was a small fabric store she always went to and we would have a nice lunch and visit one of the malls.

    It made me feel very nostalgic. I knew I wouldn't run into anyone I knew from high school but I arranged to meet a college friend for dinner. Seeing her again was a treat. twenty-five plus years have passed but we fell right into an easy comfortable zone. She was in my wedding but we have only seen each other a handful of times over the years.

    As far as resembling my ancestors - I wish I could say I knew - but since I was adopted I will never know. Although, ironically, people always said I looked like my dad. I would smile and accept the comment as a compliment since he was a wonderful man and I was incredibly lucky to have my parents. In honor of my family, I use my maternal great grandmother's name as my pen name: Annie "O'Rourke.

    Love your posts PJ!
    Anne

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    1. Hi Anne! Glad you had a good time in Cincinnati. OVRWA is a great chapter! And what fun that you were able to get together with your college friend.

      It sounds like you've been blessed with a wonderful family.

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  4. There is nothing there where I grew up, the building is gone, the neighbors have all passed, I also had neighbors that were "Aunt" Hazel and "Uncle" Walter. It was years before I knew they weren't really related other than by heart. I wasn't allowed to call adults by their first names. I was raised to have respect for my elders if for no other reason that had lived through some tough times and deserved it.
    I did recently go through the big city of Clendenin, I was there for a wedding and it was really strange, what struck me was it seemed so very much smaller than I remembered.

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    1. I also had neighbors that were "Aunt" Hazel and "Uncle" Walter. It was years before I knew they weren't really related other than by heart.

      Those relatives of the heart are very special, aren't they?

      what struck me was it seemed so very much smaller than I remembered.

      LOL! Isn't it funny how different our perspective is as adults? That huge hill we use to fly down on our bikes? Barely a bump in the road. ;-)

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  5. Aww, Aunt Patty, you know just how to make me cry!! I am thankful every day for how wonderfully close knit our family is.

    I wish I could have been there last week. I am really hoping to sometime be able to go home for an extended vacation and actually get up north to see everyone! The hardest part about moving abroad is being so far away from everyone. Thank god for the internet!

    Does Aunt Dorothy still have the "This isn't Burger King. You don't get it your way. You get it my way or no way at all" sign in her kitchen? hehe That was one thing I vividly remember about her house the last time I was there.

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    1. (((Jenn))) Wish you had been with us too. Even though you're living on the other side of the world, you are always in our thoughts and our hearts. Everybody asked about you! Seriously, as much as we talked about you, your ears should have been burning all week!

      Does Aunt Dorothy still have the "This isn't Burger King. You don't get it your way. You get it my way or no way at all" sign in her kitchen

      Still there! I don't think that sign will ever come down. lol!

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  6. I'm so glad that happy times were part of your trip despite its sad cause, PJ. I'm equally happy that you're safly home with some great new memories to add to your store.

    I still live in the town in which I grew up. A surprisingly high perecentage of my schoolmates remain here and others have returned. Because changes have ocurred gradually, they don't seem as dramatic to me as they would if I had only decades-old memories with which to compare them, but my BFF and I were laughing not long ago about how busy a road has become that was an isolated country road and favored parking spot when we were sixteen and wild about our first loves.

    I grew up with large extended families on both maternal and paternal sides and lots of friends with multi-generational ties. There's something about those connections established early in life that means they stretch but never break. Family reunions, church homecomings, class reunions, even a community reunion help keep them vital.

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    1. Thanks, Janga! You know, it says a lot about a town and a town's inhabitants when young people want to stay or return after time away. The town I now live in is a lot like that. It's one of the qualities that impressed us when we first started coming here to vacation.

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  7. I still live in the same area that I grew up in. The town I was born in is only 10 minutes away, the city I lived in until 8th grade is a half hour drive and the little town I went to high school in is only 10 minutes away as well. I do like to return to all of them, the high school really gets me...it seems so much smaller.

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    1. I know what you mean about things seeming smaller, Rhi. I felt that way when we drove by our grade school. What was huge to a 3rd grader sure is tiny through an adult's eyes! ;-)

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  8. I live about forty miles from where I grew up. My sister still lives there.

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    1. How nice that your sister is close by. I wish my brothers and I lived closer together.

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  9. What a wonderful blog, PJ! I'm glad you had a great time despite the reason that prompted the trip.

    I don't live where I grew up, but I do live where I visited every summer as a kid (because of extended family). I was born on the east coast of Florida and grew up on the west coast (Tampa). I love where we live now, though. We visit Tampa once a year as my husband still has family there.

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    1. I try to visit my relatives once a year but it doesn't always work out. An eleven hour drive is not exactly just around the corner. ;-)

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  10. PJ, what a gorgeous blog. I loved reading about the place you grew up and your feelings when you returned after so long. Hugs on the loss of your stepmother. My deepest condolences to you and your family. I haven't been back to where I grew up for years. When I was a kid, it was a fairly isolated and extremely tiny farming hamlet. It's now a dormitory suburb for the big city that's the capital of our state. By all reports, it's changed out of recognition. No farms left and all subdivisions.

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    1. Thanks, Anna. My stepmom was a wonderful woman and she will be greatly missed.

      I'm not sure which is worse; farms replaced by subdivisions or farms abandoned and broken. Either way, it would be hard to go back.

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  11. I love this blog, PJ. It's wonderful to go home again. And I especially love to reconnect with family. The older I get, the more I realize how precious that connection is.

    I love the picture of your grandmother. Over the last year or so as I've been doing my family tree, I've discovered some fun info. On ancestry.com, I found a photo of my great- great grandfather, and my uncle looks so much like him it's spooky. :-)

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    1. On ancestry.com, I found a photo of my great- great grandfather, and my uncle looks so much like him it's spooky. :-)

      How cool! I've been thinking about joining ancestry.com and doing some research on my family.

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  12. Patty, what a wonderful bittersweet week it was! One of the reasons I did all the driving for our journey was so that you could absorb everything and connect with everyone without the silly distractions of navigation and automobile operations. One of the things i've always cherished about being part of the Colman Clan (which is the best description for our collection of colorful individuals) is that we always manage to stay connected even though we seldom see or speak with so many of us. Coming from a small family (one estranged aunt, one unmarried uncle, and one unmarried brother) I wasn't sure what to expect when I married into it, but 32 years later i never cease to be amazed at the closeness we share. Since steve and i live in the neighborhood where i grew up the changes over the years are not nearly as poignant but are evident nonetheless, and I am amazed by the number of people who i grew up with who have either stayed in the area or left and returned for a variety of reasons. Oh, and the pictures?...you know i want copies of all of them...that's my fee for our adventure!

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    1. Can't tell you how much I enjoyed being able to sit back, relax and enjoy the trip. Thanks again for doing the driving!

      I feel very blessed to be part of such a wonderful "Clan" and we were all blessed when you decided to join us! ♥

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  13. Very well said PJ!!! You do Mrs. Rendell proud. It was so nice to see it through your eyes as many of us who stayed in the area often don't see the changes. I love the FB page "You know you're from Watervliet if....." It really delves way back into the history of Watervliet. Although I enjoy reading an infinite variety of books and absolutely love Clive Cussler, I enjoy romance novels as well. I am now about to date myself and say that my all time fav romance author is Jennifer Blake along with Kathleen Woodwiss and Jude Deveraux but I also enjoy Rebeccau Brandewyne, Johanna Lindsay, Beatrice Small and Shirley Busbee (oh and Harlequin writer Penny Jordan). I mostly enjoy the historal romance books probably thanks to Mrs. Lobdell. LOL none of look like our freshman year and that is probably for the best. I enjoyed your reflections and thought provoking words.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Cheryl! I hope I did Mrs. Rendell proud. :)

      Mrs. Lobdell had a lot to do with my love of history too and probably is part of the reason I so enjoy historical romance.

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  14. THis made me cry. I grew up in a very small town. If you were seen somewhere after 10:00, someone called your house to let you parents know. We never had any secrets, but we also felt like we belonged to the whole town. It was great, and it was awful at the same time. But we always, always felt safe. I think that is why i love the small town books that are so popular now, it feels like going home. I am now married with grandchildren. I don't leave anywhere near where i grew up, but i do still live in a small town. Loved your blog, I'll be "remembering" childhood stuff all day long.

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    1. Trish, you could be describing my hometown too. I can remember coming home from dates and having my parents know every place I'd been before I could even open my mouth. lol! It could be frustrating at times but, as you said, it mostly gave me a feeling of safety and security.

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  15. Another small town gal here.. sure could relate to your blog!! I still visit mine fairly regularly..and still can recognize some people [especially if I can remember what their parents looked like!!!].. Some stuff has change but a great deal remains the same! I know you're glad to have made the trek!!! ps.. my niece looked a great deal like my dad when comparing her 18 month old photo to his.... luckily, she didn't develop his mustache!!!

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  16. my niece looked a great deal like my dad when comparing her 18 month old photo to his.... luckily, she didn't develop his mustache!!!

    ROFL!!!!

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  17. I grew up near Lake Champlain in Northern New York. We lived in a town of about 35,000 until I was in 7th grade then moved about 12 miles away out in the country near a small town. Most of my family still lives in the area, but we live in NE Tennessee. When my husband retired from the AF, we picked a town with a good VA hospital and halfway between our families. His brother's family is in Orlando, Florida as was his mom before she died.. We try to visit everyone about once a year. We will be heading north the end of June. Our high school is having a mini-reunion and we are visiting relatives. My dad will be 88 in July and isn't in the best of health. My husband has an aunt in Mass. who is 92. She is the only one from that generation left in his family. My dad is the only one left in his family, but there are 6 remaining siblings on my mother's side of the family. I rarely recognize many people when we go back. many of the kids I was close to in high school were from the Air Force base in town, as was my husband. They moved on and many of my "local" friends have moved away also. They have been having mini-reunions every year lately which has been nice. Luckily, most of us haven't changed that much. Those who knew our family say my two sisters and I look a lot alike and that we look like our mother. As I get older, I think I am resembling my father's mother a bit more. I'll have to look through the old family pictures and try to see who we resemble.

    Thanks for having us take a trip down memory lane.

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