Monthly Archives: November 2014

Cousins, Football, Sweet Potato Pie, and Tryptophan Coma….Reflections of Thanksgivings Long Ago

It is late Wednesday night.  It is now just minutes away from Thanksgiving.  For weeks now, I have, almost daily, found myself in utter disbelief that it is late November 2014 – where did this year go?  I mean, for several years now, I constantly wonder how the time has seemed to speed up so swiftly the older that I get.  Remember how it was when we were kids?  The time between Christmas/New Year’s and the next Halloween seemed to be like, a decade!  But now?  I am ashamed to say that there is still at least one Christmas decoration still out, never put up after Christmas LAST year; and now it is time to drag all of the rest of the stuff out in order to decorate again in just a few short days.  I totally dropped the ball this year and didn’t decorate for Halloween, like I usually do; nor did I decorate for Thanksgiving, which is upon us and it is now pointless to do so.  But regardless of whether or not I decorate, Thanksgiving remains one of my most favorite times of year, despite the fact that the Thanksgivings of my adulthood are a bit different from those of my childhood.  Every year, as the weeks of November roll by, the memories of my family’s holiday traditions come flooding back, making me miss the cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents that I shared this holiday with every year.  Don’t you guys all remember how it was?

Thanksgiving 1970s:

Once Halloween had come and gone when we were kids, there was clearly a notable excitement in the air, anticipation for cooler weather, four days off of school for Thanksgiving (which meant, for us, our annual trip to my grandmother’s house), and shortly after that, two weeks out of school for Christmas break!  When we got to the week of Thanksgiving, it was almost more than we could take to have to go to school, and then to actually pay attention to anything that was attempted in the way of instruction.  Yes, we had to go to school – Monday, Tuesday, AND half-day on Wednesday.  Now, there WERE those, like us, who traveled for the holiday, whose parents took them out of school on Wednesday (some of them even did it for Monday and/or Tuesday, too).  But not MY parents.  Noooooo sirree.  We went to school on Wednesday, and when we were dismissed (not a moment earlier either), then we headed home, loaded up the car, and embarked on our evening of traffic as we were en route Southbound towards the Hill Country.  I remember the eager anticipation of getting there, knowing that there would only be one family there before us, and the rest of my aunts, uncles, and cousins would arrive the next morning.  It was so exciting for me to see family that I only got to see once, maybe twice, per year from far away places like Houston, Magnolia, College Station, Conroe, Humble, and Pflugerville!  (Funny to me now, since I know just how “far” those places really are, and have driven to all of them many times as an adult).  The car ride seemed agonizingly long, particularly after it got dark around 6 PM, where I was then stuck in the backseat, left to fight with my brother over crossing the invisible line, bringing his foot into my protected space.  Once it got dark, he would no longer play the license plate game with me; or really anything.  And once we left the interstate in Austin and headed east, we were on two-lane country roads for what seemed like FOREVER.  I must have asked at least a dozen times, “Are we there yet?” or “How much further?” of my dad.  Are_we_there_yet_Braizen1I would stare out the car window, amazed at the vast amount of stars that I could see that I normally couldn’t see in the suburbs.  My dad would mess with me, without fail, every year, with the same answer every time I asked if we were close:  “It’s just over this hill and around the next corner.”  Gullible me believed him.  Every time.  I would patiently watch as the car drove over the tiniest of hills, and then wait for him to drive in the slightest of curves that might constitute a “corner.”  Once those things passed by, I would ask again, and he would repeat the same answer.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  We would do this over and over for at least the last hour of our drive, until my mom would finally say, “OK that’s enough!  Tanya, just be quiet and we will be there soon enough!”  So eventually I would stop asking, and eventually would rest my head on my pillow and fall asleep – sure as hell just as we were arriving at my grandmother’s house in the absolute middle of nowhere.  We would be taken in and put to bed, while the parents unloaded the car and visited with Uncle Jerry and Aunt Charlotte for a bit before turning in themselves.

The morning of Thanksgiving would dawn, and every adult in that house seemed to rise at the crack of dawn.  They would get in the kitchen at, I’m sure, something ungodly like 5 AM, and start making coffee, breakfast, and get the ginormous turkey into the oven to start cooking.  Nanny’s made-from-scratch biscuits and her sweet potato piessweet-potato-pie-1 were made and into the oven as well, and us kids had absolutely no chance whatsoever of sleeping in and enjoying our time off from school.  Oh noooooo!  The adults would either be so loud that there was no chance of sleep, or they would come and tell us that we needed to get up and get dressed so that we could help if or when they needed us.  A parade would be on the one TV that my grandmother had in her house, and my brother and boy cousins would go outside and play football until real football came on TV.  I waited anxiously for more cousins to arrive, 1) because I loved getting to spend this brief time with all of my cousins, and 2) because once the others arrived, I would no longer be the only girl there.  Sometimes, once everyone was there, we would get to drive on the tractor with my step-Grandpa; other times, there was a horse there (and I don’t remember if someone brought it or if my grandmother had one), and we would get to take turns riding.  There was always cousin football games going on outside, and the carport held each family’s Igloo ice chest with sodas for when we got hot and thirsty.  Once all of the family had arrived, and all of the food was prepared, everyone would go inside and find a spot at what I thought was the longest dining room table ever made (when I got older I realized that it was actually two extended tables put together, with a giant tablecloth over them).  Food as far as the eye could see, and all of my dad’s family together in one place, one time each year; all you could see was food being served onto plates, loud laughter, and the voices of everyone there catching up.

Once the meal was over, and everyone had finally pulled themselves away from the table, full & satisfied (and often, miserable and unbuttoning pants), then the clear division of roles and duties were made.  My dad, his brothers, and many of my male cousins would park themselves in front of the TV to watch hours of football.  There would be loud shouting, you know, from the armchair quarterbacks; and often, the use of very unflattering or colorful language towards the players.  5473a2be006f5.preview-620Once the coaching died down, there would undoubtedly be at least one or two who would slip into a tryptophan coma and pass out, head back and mouth open on the backs of sofas and/or recliners.  Meanwhile, all of the women would be back in the kitchen, cleaning up and covering the food on the table, so that it was available when everyone got hungry again that evening.  I remember clearly being told that I needed to get in the kitchen and help clean, do dishes, or something; but then when I got in there, among my mom, Nanny, and several aunts, then I would get yelled at for being in the way.  Ultimately I would end up going outside with most of the rest of my cousins to look for something to do, not used to being out in the country.  As the afternoon wore on, some of the family would load up and head out, having only come for the day, while the rest of us would have to figure out who was going to sleep where, and what order we were going to take baths (since there was only one bathtub and no shower).  Sometime in there we would make turkey sandwiches and have another slice of pie, while adults sat at one end of the long table either playing cards or dominoes, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer or coffee.  The three bedroom house would have three or four people per bedroom, and several more on the two couches in the living room.  And the years that my Aunt Laura and her husband, Charlie, came in their RV, you were considered one of the fortunate cousins if you got to bunk in the RV for the night.  But that night – Thanksgiving night – was one of my most favorite nights of childhood memories.  My family, well, a large portion of it, were all together under one roof (or two, if you count the RV), and this made me feel safe, loved, and happy.

* * * * *

So now, here we are.  Thanksgiving 2014.  Decades have passed.  My grandmother is gone, and her house in the country was sold years ago.  Divorce has happened, and the family picture in my mind from my childhood is disjointed and different…faded with time and now almost non-existent.  The Thanksgiving tradition that we shared year after year has disappeared, and now I don’t even hear of that side of my family getting together really anymore.  My parents divorced when I was 11 or 12.  Some of the aunts and uncles have divorced.  Cousins have grown up and now have families of their own.  Several of us cousins have strained relationships, if that, with one of our parents and no longer see or talk to them.  It makes me sad, and I miss these people, this family, of my childhood.  While I don’t have any physical pictures from the Thanksgivings of my childhood, my mind is full of photographs of memories that will stay with me forever.  Because for a time, for a period, the Clark family – with matriarch Nanny, for a while her husband Dewey, my dad and his siblings Laura, Betty, Jerry, and Arthur, my mom and the spouses Charlie, Charlotte, and Linda, my brother and our cousins Sissy, Laura Leigh, Paul Allen, Douglas, John Michael, Tod, Dewey, Leida, Sheryl, and Marcy – these were what made up my Thanksgivings.  And I know that people change and grow up, time marches on, and families splinter, grow, and evolve.  But I will never forget those holidays that will always warm my heart.  Something that I will always be thankful for, not just at Thanksgiving but every day, are the connections that I have with some of these aunts and cousins on Facebook, after all of these years.

A few years ago, dinner in The Woodlands:  Me, Aunt Charlotte, Leida, and my brother, Ron
A few years ago, dinner in The Woodlands: Me, Aunt Charlotte, Leida, and my brother, Ron

Nowadays, I am back into a family with Thanksgiving traditions that occur every year, and have for as long as most of them can remember.  My wife’s family, now my family, are a large and loving group that consists of brothers & sisters, aunts & uncles, cousins and future generations.  The ages span from a few months old to late 70s, and every Thanksgiving, a good many of the clan travel in to spend the day sharing food, catching up, laughing loudly, and spoiling the new little ones that have come along.  I am beyond grateful and blessed to have been received into my wife’s family and accepted into the fold.

Today, and every day, I carry gratefulness with me.  Grateful for a second chance at life.  Grateful for a large, loving family that shares my Erikka with me.  Grateful that we are blessed enough to give back on a regular basis.  Grateful for my sisters and their giving hearts.  Grateful for every opportunity that I have to interact with my cousins or aunts/uncles, even if it is mostly on Facebook.  Grateful for my marriage and my little family, and the fact that I am fortunate to get to spend Thanksgiving with them.

Today I somehow ended up at the tail end of a funeral procession like none that I have ever seen.  It was very sobering to see police in SUVs, with lights and sirens blaring, accompanying the bodies of a local family killed last week when their sixteen year old fell asleep at the wheel while they were on their way to Disney – the poor kid driving survived while his parents and three of his siblings were ejected and killed. But when I saw three hearses pass by me, it was almost too much. So  make your passengers buckle up my friends.  Please, I’m begging you, please be safe.

Life is short, don’t blink.

Walking the Talk

For many years now, I have actively made an effort to give to others more than I did the year before.  It is something that I enjoy doing, along with my wife, and together we are constantly striving to teach our children to do the same.  I am very blessed to have a teenage son who LOVES to give back to others, simply out of the kindness of his heart.  For most of his life, he has pretty much had all of his needs, and wants, met without knowing what it is like to struggle or go without.  His older brother, on the other hand, experienced struggling and going without – to a moderate degree – when he and his young, single mother scraped by for many years just trying to pay rent and buy groceries.  I wasn’t able to instill the importance of giving back to others when he was young, because we just didn’t have any extra to give.  There were a few Thanksgivings and Christmases that were so lean, that I cried at the thought of having nothing for my young son; feeling like a failure as a mother.  Of course I know that the holidays aren’t about superficial or material things, but just like most parents, you want to be able to provide gifts for those that you care about the most.  It was during those times of lean that I truly learned that there is indeed a lot of good in a lot of people.  I remember one Christmas in particular, when we lived in a small, two bedroom apartment, and I didn’t have any money for food, let alone Christmas presents for my three year old.  On a Saturday afternoon, a few weeks before Christmas, I got a knock on my door.  When I opened it, there stood Santa Claus – arms filled to the brim with groceries.  Santa Holding Stack of GiftsAs I stood there, with my mouth open, he brought them in and set them down, and then left to go get more.  He returned with more food, then left again, only to return with a large box of wrapped toys that he placed under my bare tree.  Just before he and his helpers left, he told me that someone had signed me up for the Secret Santa at the Methodist church in my town, and that he hoped that this helped us have a better Christmas.  I remember hugging Santa and crying, so thankful that someone had taken just a moment to think of us and provide such an endearing, life-changing moment.  That Christmas, and that ten minutes of my life, forever changed how I looked at the world around me.  I vowed that whenever I was able, I would always do whatever was in my power to do the same for those who needed help.

It would be a good many years before I was in a position to do very much for anybody beyond my own family.  I would donate clothes, shoes, or toys regularly, and that was all I could do for a long time.  I would donate small amounts of money here and there as I could.  I would donate my time here and there for a cause, always remembering that Christmas and knowing that someday I would do more.  Eventually, I would join a service-based sorority, and over the years have done many charity functions and events with my sisters.  It has just been in the last few years that I have been in a place where I am able to do more and give more than I ever have in the past.  We, my family, along with the families of my sisters, have started many traditions of giving that we have watched continue to grow with each passing year.  Some years we have donated our time and our cooking to feeding families staying in the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas while their children are in the hospital.

Giving Ronald McDonald some love at his house in Dallas
Giving Ronald McDonald some love at his house in Dallas

We have, for several years, donated items to Newborns in Need, who provide sleepers and blankets for young moms having babies at Parkland Hospital of Dallas.  We donate time, money, and physical energy towards at least one breast cancer event each year.  My family, along with my sisters this year, collect diapers in lieu of gifts for our daughter’s birthday, and donate them to an organization in Dallas that gives them to homeless families.  Last weekend, at her third birthday party, between my sisters and those who came to her party, we collected almost 1700 diapers to donate!

Harrison atop the diaper mountain that was donated at her birthday (and 5 boxes came in after the pic!) - Oct 2014
Harrison atop the diaper mountain that was donated at her birthday (and 5 boxes came in after the pic!) – Oct 2014

My wife and I also volunteer four times a year at a cancer retreat, where she might lead a session of arts & crafts, and I run the kitchen for the weekend.  Recently, one of my sisters and I volunteered on a Saturday morning to make sandwiches for the homeless, and were blown away at the coming-together of our community to make 4400 sandwiches in less than an hour.

My sister, Danielle, and I spending a Saturday making sandwiches - Oct 2014
My sister, Danielle, and I spending a Saturday making sandwiches – Oct 2014

Several years ago, I wanted to give back to one of the schools in our community that my middle son attended, so my sisters and I made them a Thanksgiving basket to gift to one of their families in need.  The next year, we did two baskets.  The year after that, we did three baskets.  And last year, we did ten baskets.  Our goal for this year is a dozen baskets, but we may end up exceeding that if the interest and donations are up!

So while all of this feels wonderful and makes most people want to keep doing it over and over, there often comes a time when we are faced with putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak.  What do I mean?  I mean that sometimes we are confronted with the choice of supporting a charity, or not, based on personal choice, moral codes, or ethical behavior that we either agree or disagree with.  I’m not talking about not going to Chick-Fil-A and giving them my money because the founder’s son doesn’t agree with gay whatever.  Or not giving Hobby Lobby my money because they stand against women’s rights of choice in their own family planning.  But we don’t typically give to Boy Scouts of America because of their stance on allowing LGBT parents to act in a role of leadership in individual troops.  We feel strongly about it, as parents, because the parents of these scouts are just exactly the same as any of the other troop leaders:  Parents.  We typically don’t give our money, or donated goods, to the Salvation Army, largely due to their anti-LGBT policies and practices of discrimination.  But those are just a few examples and reasons that are important to US – and no, we don’t expect anybody to go along with us in our stances unless they hold the same ideals and beliefs.

But what if we are called upon to provide help in a time of need to a group (like a church or charity, for example) that we don’t care for all that much, or that we don’t agree with and also know that they don’t particularly care for us?  Is it our place to judge their level of need?  Is it our place to pick and choose, knowing that without the help that we could provide, their need might not get met?  I feel like, when faced with two roads before me – one is to give without question, and one is to say that the need is not great enough – which one will I choose?  It shouldn’t be a hard choice.  If my heart has in it to give – be it time, money, service, or goods – then when a need is presented to me, there should be no question as to whether I will or not.  When charitable work becomes about US, then we are no longer doing it for honorable reasons.  So what I thought might be a dilemma should never be.  If I give of myself, and I share that with those around me, then my gift of paying something forward should never be in question because of the recipient.  THIS is how we become an example to our children, and how we teach them to become selfless people who care about their fellow mankind.  I’m excited for all of the upcoming opportunities that my family, along with my sisters, will have to give back.

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Meeting Pastor Lisa at SoupMobile in Deep Ellum last week when Noah and I dropped off blankets, sweaters, hoodies, coats & hats – Nov 2014

And all of this is not to brag, boast, or say how great I am because I do these things.  This is hopefully a way to show how easy it is to help others, and hopefully inspire even one person to do so.  Pay it forward folks.  You never know when you might be the one in the position of needing that help.  This is repayment time in life for me. Repayment for countless times of help, either monetarily or otherwise, when I wasn’t in my best places emotionally or financially. Repayment for every meal, visit, help with kids, fundraiser, message of hope, and encouragement that I received from diagnosis to remission. I am forever grateful to those who came together for me and my family after my cancer diagnosis – friends, family, and many that I don’t even know.  People gave of themselves with their time, their talent, their finances; and I will forever be indebted to do the same as often as I am able.  And always remember, a little goes a long way.  We need to all just take care of each other…okay??