Sunday, November 23, 2008

Celebration of a Lifetime

The deadline for this post came and went a week ago. Of course, this deadline doesn't mean a thing. My livelihood does not depend on it nor is it necessary for me to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It is a self-imposed, personal goal. I was on course to write an entry for this blog every week and I had accomplished this goal for 10 straight weeks. Creating this has become important to me. So when I simply could not sit down at the computer last Sunday to transcribe my scribbled notes and I knew I had a very busy week at school ahead of me, I took a deep breath, swallowed my type-A blogging pride, and decided it was best to wait until I had time enough to get it right. I still strive for quality, after all. But I'm glad this day has arrived. I know I'll feel better when it is published. Some people drink wine or gamble to make themselves feel good. I write genealogy blogs. Go figure.

Last weekend was a bit of a whirlwind as my family drove from our home to New Castle, Pennsylvania to celebrate my father-in-law’s 80th birthday. It was a wonderful time for family and friends to get together, reconnect, laugh, and reminisce. On the six hour drive home Sunday afternoon, my husband and I talked about the scenes we had just witnessed. I had already written an opening for the blog, wasn’t too happy with it, and began asking Gary questions about the characters involved. Gary opened up like he never had before. And when he didn’t know the answer, he called his sister, Diane, who, with her own family, was about an hour ahead of us on the highway.

I can’t help but smile as the purpose of writing these blogs has once again been achieved without me writing a single sentence. My questions forced these two siblings to seriously consider the impact an older generation had on their lives. And while Gary and Diane knew full well I intended to write about the experience, that was not the motivating factor. The conversation was good for them as they shared their perspectives. And maybe these perspectives will now be preserved for their children.

I certainly do not mean to leave out Tom and Susan, Gary's other siblings. We had just spent the weekend together and they shared equally in this historic event. Their perspectives are reflected in this piece, as well. I was simply witness to the conversation between Gary and Diane, and received immediate feedback from them regarding my questions.

Finally, here it is. In my short blogging career, this is the entry that has taken the longest to write. Not because I didn’t want to write it, mind you, but because I want to capture a few moments of the weekend well. I wrote most of the introduction in the car on Sunday afternoon, and then took copious notes while Gary and Diane spoke by phone. Therefore, it is also important to me to weave in Gary’s thoughts and memories into this story. By adding a few pictures and videos to the blog, I hope this entry is well worth the wait. So…

Imagine eight friends sitting around a kitchen table celebrating a milestone birthday. The setting is simple, the plot all too common. If this scene were described on the back of a novel in the sale bin at a used bookstore, you’d certainly throw it back in a flash. No need to read on. Boring, mundane, routine.

Only a person who truly understands the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” would know that what the cover does not reveal is the depth of the characterization found within the worn pages. This person might just take the time to crack the binding just once, though, and be absorbed by the emanating laughter. The book takes hold and keeps the reader turning page after page.

The story is so real and so human. It tells how each of the people sitting around the table brings out the best in the others. How they have depended on each other through good times and bad. The weekends at the lake or trips across country, the building of each other’s homes and their plans for the future. No, the cover on this book definitely conceals the treasures found within. And to be that person who takes a chance on this story, you have to be drawn to these characters. You have to understand the significance of this otherwise common setting and plot. You almost needed to witness the event itself to fully appreciate the magic that transpired around that kitchen table, as it did last night at the Murphy's house. I was one of the lucky ones; I was there.

As I write this account I am driving home from New Castle, Pennsylvania. Actually, my husband is driving, one son is asleep, and the other two boys are arguing over a new video game. I should be working on a presentation for school tomorrow, but I am not. The first snow is falling and I can’t get the images and sounds from last night out of my head. I just need to write this down. It’s like the reverse of writer’s block; I can’t do anything else until I get these thoughts out.

Yesterday was my father-in-law’s 80th birthday. Reginald Stephen Murphy was born on 15 Nov 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio, the fourth of six children born to Ronald and Valeria Murphy. I could continue with the genealogy of his family, but that would not help alleviate my need to write about yesterday. So the rest of the Murphy family tree will have to wait.

Reg and Bonnie Murphy’s four children have been excitedly planning this weekend for nearly a year. Each had ideas for the best way to celebrate, but all were united in their belief that this birthday should be a family affair. Nothing extravagant and as little stress as possible was the motto. All of the children, and eight of ten grandchildren, would be present. In the end, a surprise party was planned and my family would be instrumental in its successful execution.

The cold, windy night provided the first glimpse of the Pennsylvania winter ahead, but the bitterness did not dampen spirits. Reg was certainly surprised when he saw his other three children at the restaurant, and was even more overwhelmed by the reception of friends and grandchildren waiting for him at his home. With cameras rolling, Reg showed this emotion as he blew out the candles on his cake.

As a testament to his friendship and loyalty, many close friends braved the weather and journeyed to Penny Lane. Of these friends, six, in particular, are most special. This group, forever known as “the gang,” has been friends since high school. Throughout their lives they played cards together, they bowled together, they celebrated births and consoled each other in difficult times. Every Christmas Eve was spent at the Murphy's, every Christmas night at the Yoho's, and every night between Christmas and New Years at a different friend's house. The families always spent every Memorial Day and Fourth of July at Lake Latonka near Mercer, Pennsylvania. Nearly every Saturday night for the remainder of the year the gang met at Troggio’s Restaurant. Rarely a week would pass without some form of gathering. Many serve as godparents for children of friends. Greetings of “Aunt” and “Uncle” are commonly heard from Gary’s generation. The bond among the friends in this gang is almost tighter than family.

By 7:45 p.m. all but two of the surviving original members of the gang had arrived. Those that could not move well found a seat around the kitchen table right away and stayed put. Those still mobile played musical chairs around the house while serving food, clearing dishes and socializing with other guests.

Eventually, the allure of laughter and storytelling brought Reg and Bonnie Murphy, Wayne and Betty Jean Yoho, Bob and Joanne McClintock, Mary Lou Hannon and Rosemarie Andrews together around a single table for the first time in many years. The voices of Tom Hannon and Chuckie Andrews were missed as they are every day; Russ and Dee Capitola are currently home bound but called in their best wishes during the festivities.

Like waves formed after throwing a stone into a puddle, the children of my husband’s generation, the kids who grew up together as close as siblings, formed a semi-circle around the table. Side comments added their own perspectives to stories told by their parents. By generation, inside jokes hung in the air as thick as smoke. Those of us who married into the family sat on the outer ring watching this incredible event unfold. And it was from the comfort of a living room chair that I began to take notes, thinking this is the stuff genealogy blogs are made of.

Someone in the crowd suggested we record the conversation unfurling at the kitchen table. Gary set up the camera on the counter and let it roll, unbeknownst to the guest of honor.

Analyzing the cast of characters, there is no doubt that Wayne Yoho has served as the group’s comic relief since its inception. His jokes and antics are legendary. In one of the few lulls in the evening, though, while everyone was trying to catch their breath from laughing so hard at one of the many stories told, Wayne turned philosophic. “We never made much money but we had a hell of a lot of fun.” Nothing seems truer.

The biggest laughs of the evening came at the expense of the most unassuming man around the table. Bob is a very good sport. He is one of the oldest of the group and quite possibly, the healthiest. Bob, Wayne and Reg graduated from high school together, joined the Navy and worked for the railway. He is a true gentleman and maintains a dry sense of humor. While Reg is second in command to Wayne’s outspokenness, Bob is confident to stay one step behind. This does not mean that he isn’t involved; rather, Bob’s leadership is simply more understated than the rest.

For example, Bob is the kind of man who steps forward to speak at a funeral when no one else will. It is this thoughtfulness, his affinity for the computer, and the belief that he will outlive all of the rest, that the group has nominated him as the official eulogy writer. As Rosemarie said, “Just write one for each of us now, save it on the computer, and pull it up when you need it.”

In addition and in true form, Betty Jean dared Bob to grab her breasts while she lay dead in the coffin at her own funeral. This dare was given partly as a testament to their friendship, but partly because Bob would be the least likely to actually go through with the action. Turning red and sliding his chair back from the table, Bob raised his hands in mock surrender as if he could not fathom participating in such an act of disrespect. In the next breath and with a crooked little smile, Bob started toward Betty Jean and quipped, “Why don’t I just practice now?”

Later, while taking a group photograph to commemorate Reg’s party, Bob snuck up behind Betty Jean and grabbed her breast. No less than four cameras captured the shot. (Unfortunately my flash was a bit sluggish and the image is blurred. When I receive another, clearer version, I'll replace the one I have.) Laughter erupted once again and Reg was the happiest I had ever seen him. He was surrounded by family and friends. It was as if time stood still. He, Bonnie, and their friends had fought off the signs of aging and had mustered the energy to be together one more night.

Back in the car on the Sunday afternoon drive home, Gary just got off the phone with Diane. He was thoughtful as he recounted, “Everyone there understood how important it was to reconnect with people you love. It was more than a physical effort. This group of people has been together for over 60 years. They are family and they need each other.”

Since I began writing the snow has stopped falling and the sun is fading quickly to my right. Gary and I have had great conversations. We have collaborated with other members of the family by phone to fill in missing information. We have even debated the appropriate time to turn these blog entries into a book. Having a hard copy version of this is probably the best way to preserve significant moments in our family’s history, moments like Reg’s 80th birthday party and the importance of “the gang” in his life. Creating a book is a goal I will tackle in the years to come. But there is no hurry and I’m not expecting a best seller. But when I’m ready to pursue this dream I’ll make sure the description on the jacket cover is as special and exciting as the stories found within.

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