My dad came from a large family (six sisters and two brothers) in Port Arthur, Texas. I ended up growing up with 23 first cousins which seemed so very normal to me, but I have discovered as an adult that most people do not HAVE that many first cousins. My oldest cousin on my dad’s side was born in 1940 and the youngest was born in 1970, so as you can imagine, a lot of second cousins were added in the mix also. We were an army.
I was the youngest granddaughter and named after my grandmother (Emma Julia Louise). My parents dropped the Emma, so I was simply Julia Louise (Julie).
My dad was in the Air Force for 20 years as were several of my other uncles, so it was rare that we all saw each other at the same time (much less were on the same continent at the same time). But when we were, Oh Lord, what a loud noisy mess.
We had been stationed in Germany from early 1964 through 1967. Since I was four at the time we went to Europe, I really did not have any solid memories of any of the family. This was the 60’s, so we also did not have easy communication between countries like we do now. There was no internet, no Zoom, no email, no instant messaging. In fact, we did not even have a phone in our home in Germany as there was a “community” phone in each base housing building. Long distance calls to the U.S. were considered an extreme luxury for emergencies only. But it was a great life!
Returning to the U.S. in 1967, I was basically a little German girl coming to the United States right smack dad in the middle of a lot of civil unrest in our country (which is a whole different story). We landed at McGuire AFB in New Jersey, picked up our car and headed to Virginia (DC area) where one of my dad’s sisters lived. At this point, I really had no idea what a “cousin” was, and this was my first introduction to my cousins, Terri, Barbara, and Linda. I seriously thought nothing was more wonderful than those three girls! My aunt and uncle lived in a high-rise apartment in D.C., and us four little girls went crazy going up and down the elevator and just being overall terrors. Little did I know what was in store for me in Port Arthur.
We then headed on down toward east Texas to see family that we had not seen in almost three years. My parents were more excited than I was, as I really had no concept of who these people were. Was I ever in for a wild ride.
After a couple of days traveling across the country, we arrived in Port Arthur where we were greeted like prodigals by a huge mass of people and a big old Texas style BBQ and potluck. Everyone who was able to come came to see their brother, Hank (my dad) and his family. Suddenly, after being an only child all my life, I was surrounded by ALL these people who were “family” and were hugging me and grabbing at me and kissing on me. Oh my God. There were SO many cousins, and most of them were rough and tumble boys as east Texas boys tend to be. And they were all so loud. Just so so LOUD. I just remember being so overwhelmed by the energy and noise. Each and every single one of them tried to outdo the other ones with outrageous stories and pranks. That included my dad’s sisters as well as ALL those cousins! It was SO overwhelming.
The first night there, after everyone had left, my grandfather called me into the kitchen and asked me if I wanted a root beer float. At that time, I had no idea what that was. Can you imagine being seven years old and not knowing what a root beer float was? The idea of ice cream and beer mixed was revolting to me.
Now, coming from Germany I knew what beer was, and I also knew what ice cream was, but the idea of mixing them together was disgusting. I also had no idea what “root beer” was — I just heard beer and ice cream. I think I must have had a look of horror on my face because my grandfather promised me, I would like it. And he was right — I did. And at that moment, it became a ritual for two of us. That and slices of fresh salted watermelon on the back porch. He also taught me to put potato chips on my sandwiches, which is much better than it sounds!
My grandfather was old school. He worked at a lumber yard during the day, hunted to put food on the table on the weekends (we had venison almost every day), and he had a HUGE garden where he grew massive amounts of food for the family. My grandparent’s table was never empty.
And he was SO unappreciated. Now, Grandma was a great cook (she taught me so much which is another story). But my true relationship was with my grandfather. I do not think his family (we are 100 strong now) ever appreciated how hard this man worked for them, and what a great man he was.
Over the years, when we would have family events, I would tend to run and hide because there were just SO many of them, and my dad’s sisters could be so loud, and I was born right smack in the middle of about seven boy cousins. In many ways, it was torture for me. The noise! Although, it did get better as I got a little older and the boy cousins did not think I was the most annoying thing on the planet.
So, during family get togethers, I would find a dark corner, curl up with a book and read. Without fail, my grandfather would find me, root beer float in hand to share or some other treat. He would never really talk to me except to say, “Judy Girl, what are you doing?” and then he would sit down beside me, and we would silently share whatever treat he had. In hindsight, I think all the noise got to him also. And I think I was his favorite granddaughter. And I was not a noisy child. I was quiet.
He also ALWAYS called me “Judy” or “Judy Girl” which drove me crazy because I WAS named after HIS wife, and you would think he would be able to get my name right. Over time, it became apparent that he was doing it just to annoy me to see if he could get a rise out of me, and it always always always worked. It always resulted in me fussing and lecturing him about how you would think he would be able to get my name right considering I was NAMED after his wife! He always thought my indignation was funny.
Now, do not misunderstand. Grandpa was not some sort of big old soft teddy bear. He could be a mean, rough, hateful, tough old coot, but he never ever scared me. Some of my other cousins, and even some of his children were terrified of him. He did not have good relationships with many of his children or grandchildren, and it was a shame because deep down he was an incredibly good man. I do not think I ever saw my dad talk to him, although my dad always had time to talk with his mama. And it saddens me that I had more conversations with my dad’s father than he had.
Grandpa taught me a lot of life lessons from “count your nails” to how to properly plant tomatoes to always treat your cars with respect, love God and Jesus, and to always appreciate a good root beer float. But he could be rough and mean. He never ever scared me though because no matter how mean he was, he always had time to share a treat with me or would take me out to the garden and explain things. I learned so much from him.
One time when I was about eight or nine, he tried to get a bit rough with me and turned me upside down by my feet thinking it was funny. It was not funny, and it angered me. But I have always given as good as I got, and while he had me upside down, I grabbed his leg and bit him hard, very very hard. He never got rough with me again. In his way, he respected me after that.
I miss him terribly. He untethered in 1989. I have also attached a picture of him holding me when I was small before we moved to Europe. You can tell by the way he is holding me, that he loved children, and loved me. He just did not know how to show it all the time. And like I said, I was his favorite granddaughter.