2595, 4660, 2341. They’re phone numbers and they keep running through my head. I memorized them at about the same time I learned my own. I dialed them so frequently, that almost fifty years later, I recall them without hesitation.
Back then, I was calling friends to come play even though they lived within a quarter mile. Today those boys have grown up and moved away so now those numbers just belong to their parents–Jane, Miss Lucy and Dr. Whit, and Gloria–people who were often my surrogate parents.
I’ve never known life without them. For my first 14 or 15 years I saw them almost everyday. Even later in life, a year never passed without spending time with them and I usually saw them more frequently than that.
As a child, I was in their houses so often that I knew all the interesting nooks and crannies and I knew every square inch of their yards. I traveled with them–to the beach, the mountains, even family get-togethers. And they disciplined me as quickly as they did their own.
Along with my own parents, they gave me a wonderful childhood. Collectively, our parents raised a herd of children, running wild through a neighborhood bordering hundreds of acres of forest. They defined the essence of community that I’ve sought my entire life so that my own children could share a similar experience.
Gloria left us this week.
She was the neighborhood import–a midwestern yankee who settled with her war-hero husband in a small southern town. She was tough and confident and didn’t suffer fools well. She could spot a poser a mile away and you knew who she liked and who she didn’t. I was always glad that I was on her good side. She was a fierce ally.
Her youngest son, Clayton, and I fought an endless war against Nazis, often recreating his father’s heroic escape after being shot down in a B-17 over Greece. We sat in the carport on a wooden john boat turned upside down and resting on saw horses and pretended it was an airplane. Last I checked, the “controls” we painted on the brick wall of the carport were still there. I never got in trouble for that one and don’t remember if Clayton did.
Gloria’s daughter, Kay, took me to my first R-rated movie, Animal House. I was about 14 and Kay was probably 21 or 22. We were in Charlotte at the old Eastland Mall. The woman in the ticket booth looked at me and said, “You have to be 18 to enter without a parent.” Kay never missed a beat. She looked at the woman and, sounding slightly annoyed, said, “I’m his mother.” The woman looked at me, then back at Kay and mumbled some sort of apology as she handed us two tickets. Kay was my hero.
When we were kids, Gloria’s oldest son, Jim, never had too much to do with us. He was a teen-ager by the time we were walking, but I remember he had a motorcycle and long hair that he could put in a ponytail. This must have been about 1971 or 72. I called him a hippie one day and Gloria snapped at me, “Jim’s not a hippie. Just because somebody has long hair and rides a motorcycle doesn’t mean he’s a hippie.”
Well, she was wrong about that one. When my first daughter was born in November 1989, Jim came over to show us how to put her in cloth diapers which we used until she was potty trained. And when my second daughter was born 16 years later, Jim ate breakfast with us almost every morning at Weaver Street Market for about three years. Jim I know and, yeah, Gloria, I’m pretty sure he’s still a hippie.
I know Bill least of all. He left town and made a life elsewhere. Clayton and I visited him in Boone one time, though, when we were about 12 or 13. Kay and Bill were living by a creek in a little log cabin that was heated with a wood stove. I came away with a lasting appreciation of log cabins, wood stoves and the mountains of North Carolina.
And then there’s Martin. Martin and my older brother are only four days apart in age. They were the big brothers who teased and taunted us but also mentored and guided us. After high school, they even went into the Navy together.
When Big Jim got cancer, they sent him to Buffalo, NY, for treatment. Back in 1971, they didn’t have cancer hospitals everywhere like they do now. Gloria went with Big Jim and Martin came to live with us. He may have only stayed with us a few months, but to a seven year old, it might just as well have been years. When Big Jim died, Martin went back home but left a brotherly connection that I feel to this day.
I could tell more stories, about Gloria’s family and Jane’s and Miss Lucy’s. They provide the lore and mythology that still influence my relationship with the world. Aside from my own family, they are the only constant I’ve known for all of my fifty years.
The next ten years are going to be tough as I watch my parents’ generation age and pass away. So it’s time to acknowledge those people who have made me who I am today while they are still around to hear it. Too often we never do.
For Gloria, I’m a bit late but I’ll say it anyhow. Thank you, Gloria, for sharing your family and letting me be a part of it.
Photo collage courtesy of Sueparat Cameron and shamelessly stolen by me from Martin’s Facebook page.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >