The summer of 1956, was golden from start to finish. Seven year old me felt as happy as I have ever been in my life. It was a time for exploring, asking questions and being with my family and friends. If my life were a corny movie it would feature that brief period of perfect joy when everything seemed to be about adventure and love, beginning with Sunday gatherings at Clear Lake with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. It became an instant tradition for all of us to descend on a choice spot early in the morning to set up chairs and barbecue grills so that we might celebrate our togetherness under the Gulf Coast sun.
My mother and her siblings held court while us children ran free to play. We’d ride the waves in the water, sit on the end of the long pier watching the motorboats go by, dangle from the trapeze in the playground, try our hand at fishing or catching crabs. Sometimes just sitting with the adults and listening to their banter was as much fun as our youthful exploits. Those Sundays meant freedom from worries and the joy that comes from knowing love.
Mama was the baby in her clan, the end of a long string of ten children, two of whom died as infants. Hearing them joke and quibble and vie for attention told me that my Grandma Ulrich must of have quite a woman to keep them in tow. Each of them had been given a traditional Slovakian name at birth that became Americanized over time. The eldest was William (Wilhelm) who quietly presided over his siblings as the voice of reason and kindness. Then came Paul (Pavel) his father’s namesake and a roaring force of strong will. Valeria (Berta) was the first girl who was almost immediately destined to be responsible for the care of her younger siblings. Andrew (Andres) was a quiet and stoic kind of man, almost a puzzlement. Louie ( Louis) was the youngest boy, handsome and confident. Then came the twins, Polly (Pauline) and Claudia (Wilma) who was better known by her nickname, Speedy. Somewhere in the birth order there had been a baby who died so soon after birth that the name is unknown. The brothers and sisters seem to think that the child is buried in a church yard somewhere in Houston. Then came another boy, Stephen, who would not live to see his first birthday in spite of Olympian efforts by my grandmother and grandfather to save him. Finally there was my mother, Ellen, (Elena), a beautiful and intelligent sprite whose charisma lit up every room she entered.
It made me feel special to be surrounded by my aunts and uncles. I loved listening to their banter and hearing their views on the world. Each of them had unique personalities that brought out their best qualities. Uncle William was the sweet one, the steady one, the wise one. Uncle Paul, a bachelor, was loud and volatile as a pit bull but almost secretly just a loving puppy who would give his heart if someone needed it. Aunt Valeria was stable, practical, responsible just as she had been trained to be. Uncle Andy was an enigma, a quiet man who seemed content to observe the world without comment. Uncle Louie was bright and jovial, a fun person who connected quickly with my father. Aunt Polly took center stage around her siblings, making herself heard in all the hubbub. Aunt Speedy was smart and beautiful, a thinker whose reserved personality seemed to be the opposite of her twin’s. Then there was my mother who often reminded us that she was capable of holding her own in any situation because she was the youngest of eight children.
My aunts and uncles from marriage were interesting as well. Aunt Florence, the wife of William, was the quintessential lady who always arrived with her hair perfectly coiffed and her nails manicured. She mostly sat quietly observing the sometimes circus like atmosphere. Uncle Dale, Valeria’s husband, was a handsome man who resembled Charlton Heston. He was an amiable soul who listened before speaking his measured words. Roberta, Andrew’s wife for a brief time, was a tall and thin woman who wore her long black hair slicked back into a ponytail that bobbed up and down when she walked in her stiletto heels. Aunt Maryann, Louie’s wife, was a pretty and sweet woman who seemed to always wear a smile on her face. Uncle Jack, was a tall slender fellow with jokes on the tip of his tongue who just might have become my favorite after my Uncle Bob died. Then there was my father who got along with each of the members of the cast as though he had been born into the family. With his infinite knowledge of just about everything he managed to hold interesting conversations with everyone.
On those glorious summer Sundays I suppose that I enjoyed my aunts and uncles as much as I did my cousins. I’d sit quietly on the periphery soaking in their ideas, learning about their lives, marveling at how much they loved one another even when they became entangled in disagreements. I felt so lucky to be part of such a diverse group and I marveled that they had grown up to continue to be so close. I followed them around like a little puppy, quietly learning from each of them. I suppose they never really knew how much they meant to me, how much I loved them.