I can’t help thinking of my old friend, Don Bacek, as I begin this story… I know he’d be looking at me, and sure enough would say in his best New York accent, “Is this going to be a LOOONNNNGGG story?”’ Yes, Don, it’s a bit long, but it IS a true story.
I guess the story begins when I was 15 years old. No, before that… hmmm…. I guess I should just begin it with my 50th birthday with the understanding that if you make it to 50, you have some sort of PTSD. Life happens, and sometimes it hurts. But it happens to all of us, so the specifics of my story are no more interesting, dramatic or heartbreaking than anyone else’s story. The point is, I made it to 50, and several of my nieces and nephews chose to spend that time with me.
We had a big piece of property for the party, and though it was one of the warmest winters in history here in North Georgia, my birthday weekend was probably the coldest weekend of the entire season. Not surprising with Murphy’s law and all. It was cold, but we sure had a great group of folks who chose to savor the weekend with no complaints. It was actually the perfect weekend. My niece Amanda came with her 2 boys, Justice and Jaxon, and her friend, Hope. I think every birthday party needs a little hope, and we had ours. Our 52 acres included a treehouse, a cabin, and a bunk house, nestled in the North Georgia Mountains here in Dahlonega, GA. My party was planned for Saturday night. And yes, it was the Saturday night before Christmas. I had little expectation that anyone could come, but we had the property for the entire weekend. My dad and my Debby (it is SO hard to call her a step mom, because for the past thirty years she has shown my entire family unconditional love, taken wonderful care of my father, and truly been a mom. I called my Mother “Mother” but I can call Debby “Mom” because that is what she has been to my entire family) had spent months helping me plan everything. My friend Jimmie offered the property for the occasion. My friend Sheila had been a wonderful project manager. Unfortunately, my sisters couldn’t come, but I don’t know where we would have put them if they had been able to be there, so all was still well.
My nephew Jim had called and said that he was coming with his family, too. He has three boys and a beautiful wife, Sherine. They live in Biloxi, MS, so they officially got the “Longest Yard Traveled” award for my party, but with my folks and niece traveling from Alabama, we had a big group of people headed in my direction for the best birthday party I could have ever hoped for.
Our schedule only included the party on Saturday night. Other than that, we were wide open with time, camp fires, fishing, cooking and being together. The boys, cousins who had never met, quickly claimed the bunk house as their own. No parents or adults allowed. The first night I remember getting up in the middle of the night and seeing flashlights moving about all through the woods and field just down from the house. The boys were having a ball with an independence few children get to experience these days. They were safe, happy, and completely free to explore, hike, fish, canoe and rock hound. I’ve been a part of this property for years – one of my first pieces hangs on the treehouse wall, dedicating it to all seeking peace in the depths of the woods, neighboring the National Forest.
As the weekend progressed and my family arrived and got settled in, we had a fire going next to the pond, and the boys quickly found the fishing poles and the canoe. They needed no attention. There were no tears. There was no whining or complaining or pleas for something we could not give them. They were content and happy. From baby to 80, everyone had a great time.
What I loved most about the weekend was the opportunity to just sit and talk with my family and friends. People came and went, played and stayed. Everyone was able to make themselves at home. Poor Sheila had just lost her best friend to cancer three days before. The funeral was held the afternoon of my party. Even she was able to build her nest, nurse her heartache, and chose to celebrate his life while celebrating mine as well. It was perfect.
Jim had asked if we could end the weekend by coming back to my house to show his boys my studio. We had had long talks about our work. Jim is a fire fighter in Biloxi, MS. His wife is in school. They have three boys and she has a large family there in South Mississippi. My sister, his mother, had died in 2012, due to injuries and complications that had basically crippled her since 2009. He was the first responder at his mom’s accident.
Throughout the weekend, we were able to really talk. I hadn’t seen Jim since his mom’s funeral. After she died, we all kind of drifted away. I have to admit, I was a perfectly shitty aunt. Those kids (Jim and his two sisters) had lost their mother, as I had lost mine, and I had no idea how to be supportive. They all seemed to have such full lives that I never even considered they would have some need to have me in their lives. There’s another story there, but I don’t want to tell it. Let’s just suffice it to say that I have never gotten a better surprise for my birthday than to find out these kids WANTED me in their lives and were willing to travel that far to make it happen. All of them. I was completely surrounded by love by four generations in my family. And I was in love, immediately with kids I didn’t know, cousins who acted like cousins from the minute they met, and my parents, who were hosting Christmas but took this time to celebrate me.
Todd had taken great pains to make sure that I didn’t have to plan or participate in anything but fun for the entire weekend. He and Sheila and Debby had planned menus, shopped, and anticipated the needs of every single person who would be there. We had it all, and I didn’t have to do a thing. Jimmie had even delayed decorating for Christmas, as my birthday had always been combined with a Christmas celebration. It was the first birthday party I had ever really had that wasn’t, well, diluted, for lack of a better word.
In 2005, the entire world watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina crippled the Gulf Coast. I was unable to reach anyone in my sister’s family in the days following. I learned from the Red Cross that they were ok, just not in any position to communicate, and we could get no report for how badly they had been hit in Wiggins, MS. So, I packed up a truck with an outdoor kitchen. I went to grocery stores, Home Depot, Verizon Wireless, and friends and family and asked them to help out in any way they could to help me get down there and help in any way I could, and from what we understood, food was an issue. Jim and his fellow firefighters were spending their days pulling bodies out of homes. Stores were closed. It was difficult to get gas. I remember arriving at the MS state line and it was like the lights had just gone out. There was no power for as far as we could see. I was escorting a crew who had heavy construction equipment who had also contacted the Red Cross and wanted to help someone. The Red Cross gave them my number, and we planned our departure. It was five days after the storm.
My point in telling you these things is to help you understand my trips to Mississippi, as they are an important part of this story. I had one trip to Mississippi that hadn’t been an emergency. It was Jim’s first wedding. And that trip, nor the wedding, was anything to be happy about. A torrential storm was brewing that day, too. My poor nephew and his bride actually rode in a horse drawn wagon to the reception. The wagon got stuck in the mud, and my sisters and I actually pushed that dang wagon in bare feet with mud up to our knees to get those kids to that reception. The marriage lasted about 15 minutes in the grand scheme of things. But she wasn’t the girl for him. The fates had better plans for him, and the next thing I knew, he was married to Sherine.
My next trip to MS was for Hurrican Katrina. I ended up cooking meals for family, neighbors and firefighters for the next 11 days. I was able to make huge pots of chili, spaghetti, bacon and eggs. The guys from the firehouse would come home to a huge hot meal. I watched them closely – you could tell how the bond they shared was an important one, but I had to wonder how they were dealing with it all. It was just too much – these kids were barely into their twenties and experiencing a trauma that would live with them for the rest of their lives.
The next trip was when my sister was in her accident. And there were many subsequent trips when we were called down as they didn’t expect her to make it. This went on for three years. She was transferred to hospitals throughout the Gulf Coast area, including Mobile, New Orleans, and several hospitals in South Mississippi. Every single trip reminded me of the Katrina trip – the lights were out, and I was heading into despair. Nothing can make you feel more impotent than knowing nothing you do will bring any comfort to those you were heading towards. There are no words, no actions, no touch that could take away the pain these kids were experiencing.
My final trip was Mary Ann’s funeral. Bless my little niece’s heart, she was begging one of us to marry her father so that we would all stay together. She was young, and this is how she made sense of it all. There was just nothing we could do, but we were there. And then we were gone. And there was silence for three years.
One day my phone rang and it was Jim. He was planning a surprise wedding for his wife, Sherine, and he wanted all of his aunts to be there. Unfortunately I had a pottery show that weekend and was unable to go. But I partnered his friend with my nephews in California, and they were able to set up a group Skype call so that we could all be there, if just for a moment, to share this sweet expression of his love for his wife. He said that he didn’t feel like their first wedding was indicative of how he felt about her. It wasn’t romantic enough. And he wanted his family with him. He told me that he was having a serious urge to see all of us – to bring his family together. He needed more. That’s when I invited him to my birthday party, and he actually brought them here.
So our conversations were deep. How do you go through all of these things and be able to keep things “light”. It just couldn’t happen. We all know too much, have been through too much, and apparently had healed without setting the break properly. We were all still wounded in our own ways, and he needed to talk about things. So we did.
In the years since Katrina, and his mom’s death, Jim had excelled in his position with the fire department. He is a very sober individual, so this is no surprise to me. He has personally had to deal with the worst case scenario, and he admitted it was wearing on him. With every conversation we had, and every moment we shared, I came to understand how much he had needed this trip with his family. But it was very calculated – he didn’t just need someone, he needed ME. And as long as I’m being honest, I loved it. When your own child rejects you for so many years, you tend to buy in to the belief that you aren’t necessary. And Jim was there and he made me feel needed.
(Remember the flurry of happiness that is all around us this weekend. Babies giggling, boys fishing, parents decorating, husbands cooking, friends stopping by and moving in – non-stop happy.)
So on Saturday night, the coldest night of the year, my friends began filing in. Debby and Sherine had decorated the porch in tie dyed decorations. The cake was in place and a big buffet of yummy delicacies were put out. The bourbon punch and the champagne and wine table was full. It was a party!!! And I have to say I have the best friends in the world. No one complained about the cold, as we huddled under outdoor heaters. At about 9 o’clock, a miracle happened – my phone rang! There’s little cell service out there and I have no idea how that happened, but even my friend Alan was showing up. He had driven up from Jacksonville. He had been our hero for the entire year of 2015 (another story), and here he was on his final heroic mission for the year. Todd quickly drove to the house and led him to the party. It was perfect. We laughed and told stories well into the night. No one even complained that we couldn’t get the music to work, the temperature dropped the entire time, and the heater was only big enough to warm a few of us at a time. We giggled well into the night, and some of us even sang our own songs.
And then it was over. Parents left. Amanda left. Friends left. The quiet was returning to the forest. Bags were packed, rooms were cleaned out of the chaos. Treehouses were finally witnessed by the adults who had been banned from the premises.
As my friend Christopher and I hiked into the woods for the final time to check on the last tree house, we saw several back packs and sweat shirts that had been left in the woods. Then we heard giggling. Then we spotted the boys, the cousins who had never met. They had climbed (several times apparently) to the top of the ridge to the left of the trail and had made a slide. “Watch this!” they yelled to us. One by one these boys launched themselves off the top of the ridge, sliding down on their butts until it became too steep to maintain, then they tumbled head over heels, one after another, laughing hysterically as the next one in line landed at our feet. Oh my gosh, the joy in their faces. They asked us not to tell their parents where they were or what they were doing. We told them to line it up again so we could video it for our own enjoyment later. They told us it would take about 15 minutes so Christopher and I headed deeper into the woods to inspect the treehouse.
We came back and they were ready. We were ready. The entire production was repeated, and over in just a few minutes, but some of the happiest minutes I’ve ever had. As the boys wanted this to remain “our secret”, I inspected each of them. Their parents were yelling for them, as cars were being loaded. “Boys, your butts are going to give you away.”
We all headed back to the house and as the boys filed into the house backwards to change their clothes for their trips home, my ten year old nephew told him mom, “I don’t want anything for Christmas. This was the best present EVER.” I was hooked.
Jim asked if he and his family could come back to the house. He wanted to show the boys my studio and what I did. We all headed back to town, with cars loaded to the max. I had just enough pieces to send home with them as gifts. I showed them my studio. I even had a load in the kiln that they were the first to see. They immediately claimed what they wanted. Jim was completely amazed and afraid to touch the pieces. As I was unloading the kiln though, I cut my finger pretty badly and he went immediately into action. “Todd do you have this, that and the other thing” as he quickly put pressure on my finger. Todd buzzed around and they got me wrapped up as if I had ripped a finger off my hand. He didn’t want to leave. So we kept talking. I told him that I wish I was closer, as clay had done so much for me where stress is concerned. And that I bet he would be a natural, as much as he played with fire. We started talking about it and I encouraged him to find a class or something he could join. He laughed and said that probably wouldn’t happen, but he loved the idea. He asked if I taught classes and I told him no, but occasionally do workshops that people seemed to enjoy.
So we had a late lunch, early dinner, and the little family piled into their big truck to head South again. Hugs and tears, and promises to do better moving forward with staying in touch.