I’ve long joked about how my family tree is more like a shrubbery, and it’s funny because it’s true. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve “collected people”. Sure some I had to lure with pink lemonade and cherry chip cookies, but a girl has got to do what a girl has got to do. Besides, lemonade and cookies for gaining me seems like a great bargain!
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that while I may have been collecting the people around me, surrounding myself with those who would lift me up and love me, they were also choosing me. That notion, that idea that these people chose and continue to pour love into my life, is something I will never take for granted.
I came across this image yesterday and it brought me to tears. Today after work, I’m picking up my kids and making a trek north to say my final goodbyes to one of those who helped to raise me.
When I was young and school was out for the summer, my brother Scott and I would spend our time up in Wyoming. His dad Bill would come down to grab us, and we’d be off. Inevitably, somewhere between Fort Collins and Cheyenne, we’d hear the Oak Ridge Boy’s “Elvira” and I would be questioning the future of my summer and my sanity, sandwiched between the two of them singing along in the middle seat of a pickup truck.
For all intents and purposes, growing up Bill has been my dad (one of two). There is no blood shared between he and I, and yet, that never once stopped him from loving me. Knowing that he and his wife Debbie took me in each summer when they had no obligation to do so, felt like a privilege, even then. I knew that once we rolled into Bar Nunn, WY and walked into that yellow house, we would be greeted with hugs and the air would be permeated with the scent of freshly brewed coffee.
Debbie was a small woman in stature, but she made up for it with personality. The phrase “Big things come in small packages” sums her up perfectly: big heart, big love, big laugh, big emphasis on family, big on morals and manners, big on accountability and dependability. If there were ever a depiction of the balance between “kind and compassionate” and “take no shit”, I’m pretty sure it would look just like her.
My mind has been a whirlwind the last 12 days, trying to find words to express my feelings, and I’ve failed miserably. Instead I see flashes of memories and lessons gleaned from them, and feel a mix of gratitude and profound sadness. Since I can’t put words to the feelings, I will instead share some of the lessons she’s taught me.
Lesson One: Family is everything. To know Debbie was to love her, and to be loved by her was a gift. She knew that family was more than shared DNA, and that the bonds of the heart are the strongest of all. Since she chose to love me, and considered me family, I gained three siblings and more grandparents. She knew us kids would fight, and knew when to step in and when to let it play out. However, the constant refrain was “We’re family; we’ll get through it together.”
Lesson Two: Get your hands dirty. Whether we were working in the garden, cooking dinner, setting up camp, fishing or even handling life’s challenges, there was encouragement to really get in there and do the thing. Clothes wash, people wash, but there’s magic in feeling what you’re doing instead of tip-toeing through life. It won’t always be easy, but the work will make it worth it.
Lesson Three: Laugh and learn. Laughter is the best medicine, hands down. Learning is why we’re here. Combining the laughter and learning makes for great stories. I’ll never forget sitting with Debbie at Hardee’s while she attempted to teach me how to eat an ice cream cone. The swirled vanilla and chocolate frozen treat was starting to melt, and with the patience of a saint, she tried to help instruct me. That was of course, until she saw the perfect moment to bat the bottom of the cone up into my face. We laughed, I learned.
Lesson Four: Expect the unexpected. From tornado warnings and sandstorms to health scares and “Little Chucky” coming over to play, we never really knew what a day would bring. Throw in practical jokes and we learned to stay on our toes. Though days were a little crazy sometimes, the one thing we could always expect was the support of our family.
Lesson Five: Be a decent human and change the roll of toilet paper! I think possibly one of the only times I was ever yelled at by her was for failing to do so. I was the culprit who was not only indecent, but left her without entirely. That was not a mistake I’ve made again.
Lesson Six: Relish the small pleasures. Some of her favorite things were sitting with a hot cup of coffee, having meaningful conversations, gardening, baking and loving people how they wanted/needed to be loved. She absolutely loved to have her feet rubbed, and most nights as we settled down to watch TV, I would sit before her on the floor and do just that. She’d make the silliest noises of appreciation just to get me to laugh, to let me know she loved me.
Lesson Seven: Know your worth. She was not the only person in my life who has cautioned me about the vastness of my heart or the helpful nature I have. She was, however, the first to really help me realize they shouldn’t be given as freely all the time. When my brother Mike needed help cleaning out his truck, I was happy to help. She asked “What’s she get for helping? It’s your mess.” We talked often about the balance between giving love and being walked on. Those are conversations I will cherish, and the reason behind me being her “sweet girl”.
I know as I am surrounded by those I consider my family this weekend that the loss of this amazing woman is going to be felt by all, though each of us in different ways. She was my Bonus Mom, the quiet supportive presence whenever I needed, she was a confidant and a pillar of strength and resiliency. It is my hope that we laugh in addition to cry, that we share memories and strengthen bonds, and that we honor her as she deserves.
I love you all and I’m grateful,