The best thing my parents did for me was to give me 3 brothers and 2 sisters.
It was hard on Mom, I guarantee you, and not a whole lot easier on Dad.
Mom birthed all of us–and another son who lived only two or three days and was never named–in a 9 year period. Dad worked in the coal mines to put groceries on the table and shoes on our feet. Sometimes, he doubled back for another 8-hour shift because the money came in handy.
When Mom went to Heaven on June 2, as she approached her 96th birthday, she was surrounded by her remaining five children, all of us 70 years of age or above. (One has to wonder how that would feel, seeing all your children live to be old!) (Note: Dad died in 2007, and our youngest brother Charlie died 18 months earlier.)
Last week, the five of us met back at the rural Alabama farmhouse for the first time since Mom’s departure. On Thursday night, we had a dinner to celebrate the birthdays of oldest brother Ron and next-to-oldest brother Glenn. They were born 364 days apart.
I went up on Wednesday, taking Amtrak’s “The Crescent” from New Orleans to Birmingham. Youngest sister Carolyn and her husband Van met me there, and chauffeured me to the farmhouse, some 60 miles to the Northwest. (People sometimes ask, “So, what town did you grow up in?” I reply, “No town. Even though I tell people I’m from Nauvoo, Alabama, we lived 5 miles out from that. In the next county even.” It’s about as rural as it’s possible to get.)
Growing up, we thought of ourselves as far apart in age. But eventually, all six of us were in our 20s together, then our 30s, and so forth. When we were all in our 40s, I asked Mom if that made her feel old. “No, it’s not my problem,” she answered.
These days, we’re all peers. All but the girls are white-headed, and we know why they aren’t.
For the record, here is the “skinny” on each of the siblings….
Ronald J. (“Ron” or “RJ”) is a retired Baptist pastor who lives in Gardendale, Alabama, just north of Birmingham. He and wife Dorothy have all their children and grandchildren living close. Not sure which Baptist church they’re active in, but Ron preaches as often as he can.
Glenn Dale (no nickname, just “Glenn”) lives in Riverside, Alabama, east of Birmingham toward Anniston. He was in the carpet business most of his adult life, and is the only brother to serve in the military. The day I went off to college, he joined the Air Force. He goes to Riverside Baptist Church.
Patricia Ann (“Trish”) lives across the road from the farmhouse outside Nauvoo. She has spent most of her adult life there, looking after her children and grandchildren, and taking care of our Mom and Dad. Her husband James still commutes to Birmingham where he has worked for the telephone company for decades. They are leaders in New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church.
Then, there’s me. Enough said.
Carolyn Sue (Usually called “Carolyn” but affectionately called “Camp” for reasons see below) lives in Jasper, about 15 miles south, with husband Van. She’s retired from the phone company and he from the Jefferson County sheriff’s office where he was a detective. They belong to Zion United Methodist Church.
Charlie (called “Tog”) died in April of 2006 of a heart attack. He had been at various times a coal miner, a truck driver, and numerous other things. His wife Carolyn was a career schoolteacher, and they lived a mile down the country highway from Mom and Dad. Charlie was as bright as anyone you will ever meet, but camouflaged it behind his country attire and rural ways. His sense of humor was delightful. I miss him every day.
Here’s the thing about these people: They are all characters. Each is an original one-of-a-kind product of the Heavenly Father the day He decided to make a sense of whimsy standard equipment in a few humans to see how that would go. You might say each was a test model. One wonders if the Lord decided to return to the drawing board after seeing how we turned out.
We all love each other, but we wouldn’t actually do anything foolish like actually put that into words. We just show it by talking and being there and caring.
What we did around the dinner table last Thursday night.
You would have loved the meal. Trish and Carolyn did the cooking, and it was the type of country fare we all grew up on and came to cherish. Vegetables–okra, peas, corn, squash, tomatoes– from the garden just outside the farm house (Ron and Van come up and plow the tractors; Trish and James have their own gardens), baked chicken, corn bread, and several desserts (lemon icebox pie, German chocolate cake, another chocolate cake, and fried apple and peach turnovers).
During the meal, Ron announced that on Thursday, he was meeting with the monument people to order small stones for the foot of Mom and Dad’s graves. At the foot of Mom’s grave, the stone has the names of all the children to whom she gave birth. At the foot of Pop’s grave, the stone will have all our nicknames.
And that’s how we got into it.
Originally, Ron’s list went like this: “Doc, Dee, Trish, Suk, Camp, and Tog.” (From the oldest to the youngest, “Doc” being Ron and “Tog” being Charlie.)
A dozen discussions broke out at once.
How did Ron come by the nickname “Doc”? He couldn’t remember, and thought it had something to do with Doctor. I had to remind him that Mom told us when Ron was a preschooler, when he wanted to use profanity, he would call out “Dockeye!” For whatever reasons. Out of that, he became Doc.
Glenn had several nicknames, with “Dee” being the least offensive one. In the 1950’s when Dick Tracy in the comics was chasing a bad guy named Pear Shape, Dad dubbed Glenn “Pear Shape.” Even though he was the best athlete in the family and had muscles on top of muscles, Glenn could “pooch” out his stomach and get us all laughing.
Trish’s nickname was a natural, although she never cared for it. She wanted to be Patti, and when she finished high school and went to work as a telephone operator, she told people that was her name. Pop used to call her Flossie, for reasons known only to him.
I’ll come to Suk–my own so-called nickname–in a moment.
Carolyn is still called “Camp” or “Campy” for reasons we remember all too well. In the mid-1940s, we children came down with a good case of “the itch,” and would be slathered in Campho-phenique, a treatment still available in pharmacies. Being kids, we pronounced the name as Campo-Feneeky, and being naturally mischievous, bestowed that nickname on the most indefensible one in the family, baby sister.
Charlie (his name was Charles Wayne) is a nickname in itself, but until he married, we all called him “Tog.” When he was born in 1944, Carolyn was two and when she tried to say his name, it came out “Tog.” And that’s how he became Tog. He never seemed to mind, although his young wife asked us all to make him Charlie and we did without a protest, as I recall.
Now, I’ve always insisted that my name “Joe” is itself a nickname, since I was not christened Joseph but Joe Neil. The only person to argue with that is Ron, the oldest sibling, the most mischievous one of the lot, and the one whose calling in life was to run our lives and to find nicknames for us all. He insists that my nickname growing up was Suk or Sook. I reply that he’s the only one who called me that and I never “took” it.
What happened is that an elderly neighbor was married to a lady named Sukie. As a storm approached, they were rushing to get to their outdoor storm cellar. The wind was whipping and trees were bending, and the man called out to his slow wife, “Fall in there, Suk!” For reasons long lost, that impressed us kids as hilarious. And, without further ado or any connection whatsoever, Ronnie made me “Suk” or “Sook.”
Another nickname he tried on me but had forgotten was Tootsie. I was about 12 and he and I were trying to get a calf in the barn. I was barefooted and the muck and mire in the barnyard was ankle deep. At one point, the calf stepped on my feet with those razor-sharp hooves. It hurt really bad (as any farm kid can tell you) and I was crying. Not gifted with mercy, Ron began teasing me, “Oooh. Calf step on his tootsie?” And out of that, I became–to him at least–Tootsie.
But I was not having Suk or Tootsie either put on my Dad’s tombstone as my nickname. No one else called me that and I certainly didn’t care for them.
But what then?
I told the family of a dim memory from my early childhood. Dad had bought me a little hat and would sometimes take me with him to the store or to visit with friends. Because of the hat, they called me “Preacher.” And in my mind, that stuck. In fact–and I told them this too–when I was 7, I heard of a kid preacher somewhere who was 7 years old and I recall thinking he had gotten the jump on me.
No, that had absolutely nothing to do with my call into the ministry, which did not occur until I was 21 and a senior in college. But it lingers in memory from childhood.
So, now the little marble stone at the foot of Pop’s grave will say something like “Father of Doc, Dee, Trish, Preacher, Camp, and Tog.” I guarantee that Pop would know each of us by those tags.
After solving this crisis, we played rummy.
Every family has its traditions. Ours is the simple card game of rummy. Dad used to play it with his brothers and neighbors when we were children in West Virginia (late 1940s), and in time, he taught it to us. As teenagers and beyond, we played rummy. We played with Pop or with each other. Over these decades, whenever we would return home for a visit, at some point, one of us would look at the other or Pop at one of us and someone would say, “Whose deal is it?” And we’d be off.
The negative tradition we grew up under tried to enforce itself upon us that all card-playing was sinful. We rejected it out of hand. Anyone with half a brain could see it was a harmless time of fellowship, a great way for us to enjoy one another’s presence.
I still have some of the scoresheets from decades ago. And from time to time in the 1980s or 1990s, I would place a cassette recorder on a chair and tape a full hour of chatter as we played. We laughed, kidded one another, grew frustrated over the hands we were being dealt, and had a ball. Three or four years ago, I took several of those tapes and gave to a friend who transferred them all to CDs and we made a set of copies for each sibling. They are precious keepsakes. We can pop one into the CD player and hear our Dad playing cards with Charlie and some of us, and grow teary-eyed.
So, we played Thursday night, the first time in a long time. And, because both Glenn and Ron spent the night (with me) at the farmhouse–no one is living there since our Mom went to be with the Lord–we played rummy again Friday morning.
A few times, in the mindless chatter that fills the hours of our playing, I volunteered something like, “Oh, I remember now the nickname I had in childhood. They called me ‘Champion.'” Or, winner.
Everyone laughed and no one took me seriously.
Someone brought the fried pies to the table and we munched as we continued playing.
As for who actually won and who came in last, that mattered only until the next game was underway.
Glenn has an aneurysm on his aorta which has us all concerned.
Patricia’s daughter Deanna is having surgery this week.
Ron has battled diabetes all his adult life.
We’re all at the point where, as they say, “it’s always something.”
That’s why we treasure these moments. It’s why we love each other and pray for each other, and bend over backward to head off any conflicts before they arrive. Life is too short for that.
We have much to live for, and much more to live for eternally. We’re all planning on being there with our Mom and Pop and other loved ones. We have a little brother we’ve never met and grandparents we’ve not seen in over a half-century. So much.
At one point, Ronnie said, “You know, it’s very possible none of us will even be living ten years from now, with all the conditions we’re battling.”
I said, “Speak for youself, mister. I’m planning on going strong for another 20 years. I want to be preaching when I’m still in my 90s.”
He didn’t say anything. We both know that even when we do all we can, the decision is not ours. “My times are in Thy hands,” the Word says (Psalm 31:15).
It’s hard on the mother and dad bringing all those children into the world and raising them to maturity. But in doing so, they give their offspring a cluster of best friends for the rest of their lives. And ain’t that a good thing to do.
I used to tell our parents that if I could have chosen, I would hope I’d have been smart enough to have selected them as my mother and daddy. These days, I can say without hesitation I’m so glad God made the selection of Ronnie and Glenn, Trish and Carolyn, and Charlie, too, as my brothers and sisters. I carry a few scars on my body from some of their antics, but that’s all good, too.
Glad we did this together, siblings. You are a credit to your parents and a joy to your brother.