I remember the day one of the three of my grown sons asked me why I never took them to McDonald’s when they were little.
I think it might have been Jake.
I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth. A million moments crowded into my head as I looked at Jake, incredulously.
I suffered all those hours in the summer heat while gillions of kids ran manically around the too small playground under the yellow arches for no reason? He seriously had no recollection of all those stupid toys from Happy Meals and the one spectacular day some strange kid pulled a condom from the bottom of the ball pit?
(In explaining the nastiness of this revelatory object, all three sons admitted that the ball pit floor had become ‘really dirty’ since the whole idea became part of McDonald’s set of attractions.)
But there you go. It says something about what we remember, each of us, about the moments, good and bad, of our childhood. Interesting, given that no matter what we consciously remember or don’t, so much of what happens during that time probably coalesces the attributes of our personality, cements how we react, how we perceive ourselves, how we think others see us.
I don’t think I am giving that time too much credence.
And maybe its a good thing McDonalds didn’t seem to be at the forefront my kids brains in the long term.
But subconsciously, the street we grew up on, the children who populated it, their parents, the day to day life we experienced, well, it’s not just the stuff of memories we dredge up because something pricks us to do so. Along with our human genetic hard-wiring, it’s these moments that bathed and cordoned off chemical signals, subtly altering neurons and made us who we are.
For something so important, it’s a wonder we don’t think about them more.The more time that passes, rarely do we share them, only turning over the sweet or sour memories in our mind, sometimes giving a glimpse to a son or reminiscing with a brother, on a moment that probably would never mean as much to them as it does to you.
But most of the time, it’s just a solitary activity.
Until last month.
Tony, a young boy who lived on my street, wrote to me. So did his sister Kitty.
Somebody has passed him this blog and he and his sister Kitty had read my reminisces.
Now if you had asked me if anyone from those days decades ago would have read the story, see it from their eyes, their memory, I would have told you there wasn’t a chance. The story was a vehicle to explain a truth I had learned. My life has meandered away, without malice but wandered nonetheless, to other places. I left Oak Hill when I was 21.
“Janet, I’m Tony Francis, remember me,” he explained.
Yes. I remember you Tony. You and your family were a subject of a very clear conversation I had with my Dad. I had to be about 9 or so.
“Janet, people are going to say bad things about Mrs. Francis, but she is doing the best she can. And you will see, her bravery is going to make a difference.”
The story had gone around the neighborhood, I guess. The only version I heard was from my Dad. Mr. Francis left Mrs. Francis, a mother who had never worked outside the home, with their six children, their ages +/- 5 or 6 years on either side of mine. Her solution (blessed she was to be one of the few Catholics in a fully entrenched Baptist stronghold) was to send all but the oldest, to the local Catholic orphanage.
As a chlid it sounded lonely, in ways I could consider with the minimal logic a child can muster. In ways that humans, no matter their age, can feel with their heart, it felt scary. When I became a mother, I will confess, I thought about Mrs. Francis many times. I could only guess how difficult it was for her to do what she did. The helplessness she must have felt and the knowledge that she was being judged, because she was, as wrong as that was. Back then, what most people didn’t know was that Mrs. Francis had a plan. Over the years, she would bring her children back home, one at a time, as she could. Every summer, another one of the Francis children would return to the late night, hide and seek, soft summers lit with lightening bugs and singing with June beetles.
“When you talked about Ira Golden and his bees in your story, it made me think about him,” said Tony.
Tony went on explain that the handsome boy Harlan from my memory, was his best friend all through high school. And if Ira, Harlan’s dad, had an influence on me and my ideas about bees and my own brother, he’d apparently been quite an important figure in Tony’s life.
“Ira drove a truck for Strickland and was gone most of the time. Since we had an absent father, I remember Ira to be a man’s man, with lots of tools, motorcycles, (and bees). He was in fact a very wiry little guy, who didn’t seem to be afraid of most anything, or anyone (especially his wife). I remember the tension that Ira seemed to cause every time he’d come home from a long trip, when he would work very hard to reshape the household to his liking for the short time before he’d leave again. It seemed to be an endless cycle. I think the bees were a really good escape for him, and since none of his kids took an interest in them, he was always eager to share his bee keeping skills with anyone who would listen and engage. He really was a master bee keeper and gardener.”
The gossip of Oak Hill, back years ago when some of us were cementing all things that would make us who we are, apparently wasn’t quite right in it’s evaluation of Ira and his importance in the long term.
Kitty chimed in.
“What a great place to grow up. I always admired the self sufficiency of our neighbors who raised bees and gardens, caught fish and hunted. I too remember the sweetness of Mr. Golden’s honeycombs. I tried to start a garden in our back yard, but it was futile. Way too shady and rocky. We did have a peach tree that was mainly enjoyed by some type of pesky fruit worm. My brothers sometimes hunted in the woods out behind our house and occasionally brought home a rabbit or squirrel but we didn’t count on them for supper. My sister, Joanie and I hunted too, but we preferred the live baby bunnies and turtles we’d find in the woods and bring home to raise in a shoe box.”
I wanted to know more about the Francis’. How things had gotten on for them. I wanted to know about Tony.
Tony is a grandfather. His son has his doctorate in engineering and his daughter owns her own law firm.
“My parents are both gone,” Tony offered, “but all of my brothers and sisters have done well.” He meant in the sense of living lives with a certain amount of purpose. Most of them had college degrees. They had lives full of people they cared about. They had jobs that took advantage of the individual skills that they were each suited for. They were successful. They seemed close as a family. As he talked, something was very clear. Despite the toils and troubles, they were a family that had persevered. There appeared to be little bitterness and I certainly couldn’t hear any self pity.
“Tony, what was it like in the orphanage? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.” I asked him. “But I am very curious, who taught you lessons about life and how to deal with it?”
“I lived at the Orphanage from time I was 10 through age 13. That experience is not something I would recommend to anyone, but I believe I am better for having been there. Things weren’t very good at home, and I did have some form of stability while there. You asked about persons of influence, and I had several while there. A very strong German Nun, Sister Charlene taught me how to work, and a wiry little Italian Nun, Sister Concetta taught me how to respect other people. I learned how to drive at the age of 11, and was working independently with all types of farm equipment by the time I was 12. I went to Catholic High for three years and to Sylvan Hills for one after I returned home. Almost immediately out of High School, I joined the Army for 2 years.”
He continued. “I really admired (or even envied) your family as a child. I don’t even remember what your dad did for a living, but it looked like you guys were better off than we were. I really liked that your dad kept his property neat, clean and organized, much different from ours. Perhaps he was one of the people that influenced me early on, as I have been accused of being a bit of a neat freak with my property, and still am.
We were a family that was admired?
If Tony and I had been in the same room, he would have seen the same expression that I exhibited when Jake told me I never took him to McDonalds.
“I’m glad to have reconnected with you,” Tony said, when we were finishing up our conversation, “feel free to share the escapades of the Francis family if you feel it will give hope to someone.”
A man after my own heart, when he speaks words like that.
Hope, the ability to care for others, humility and grace doesn’t come from lives that move along smoothly. It comes from Oak Hill and places like it, where life was hard, and just hard enough so that when you look back you realize how important it was to know people who knew the value of sharing bees or tending a garden. Or people who were children when you knew them, willing to share with you their life as adults, not thinking about what they didn’t have or didn’t get to do, or had to do, but hoping that what they learned might bring hope to someone else. We humans, we were made to struggle and persevere, to work and overcome. It’s the best way to make young brains ready for whatever life throws at them.
Kitty thinks Tony should write a book.
So do I.
In the meantime… I hope, along with Tony, that you were blessed with people in your life that made a difference and that because of them, with every opportunity to do the same that comes your way, you will!