Growing up a Gardner

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut

I spent the weekend after Thanksgiving Day in North Carolina with my father’s family. Cousin Courtney got married, and we had a glorious reunion of aunts, uncles and cousins.

Funny thing is that the parent who was on my mind all weekend was my mother.

I write a lot about my mother, and if you get the impression she was an incredible woman, you’re right. She was kind, fiery, hardworking, fiercely devoted to family and strong. She gave my brother and me many unquantifiable gifts that shaped who we are. Nothing she gave us, however, can outshine what she did when it came to my father’s family.

We grew up surrounded – literally – by the Wards, my mother’s family. My grandparents lived across the street. Uncles, aunts and cousins were only blocks away. For most of my life, all my mother’s brothers and sisters lived in our small West Tennessee town. We saw each other daily, whether we wanted to or not!

The Gardners, my father’s family, was as close-knit as the Wards were, held together by my Bubbie and Granddaddy Mack and the love of the brothers and sisters for each other. But my father, the oldest child, was gone, killed in a U.S. Air Force plane crash when I was 6 years old. We made our home in Lexington, and they were based in Angier, N.C. Between us was more than 650 miles.

The overwhelming feeling I had last weekend as I sat in cousin Barbara’s house with a gathering of cousins, aunts and uncles, reminiscing about our growing up days, was one of attachment. I know these people. I may have missed some milestones as we all got married, had children and lived life, but I KNOW these people.

I know that it’s useless to argue with Helen, that Marsha figures things out, that Sandy will always get things done, that Cynthia is sweet, that Barbara is funny, that Tommy’s blood is Carolina blue and that Curtis has a big heart.

I know which bedrooms in the old home place belonged to Uncle Stuart and which to Aunt Mary Anne, which one Aunt Lena had first and which one she switched to. I know where the scary attic was and that, if you were very quiet, you could climb out on the tin roof from Uncle Stuart’s bedroom window.

They are my family, as much a part of the fabric of my life as the beloved Wards I saw every day.

And that is all because of my mother. It is all because she saw and knew the love of the Gardners for the family of their son and brother. Family trumped all, even when it wasn’t easy.

It wasn’t easy to make expensive long-distance phone calls, to sit after a long day at work and write letters, catching my grandparents up on the usually mundane things going on in our lives. It wasn’t easy to buy and ship the Christmas presents, to remember the birthdays, to be present for the celebrations and holidays.

It certainly wasn’t easy to board that Greyhound bus and ride across two states to deliver us to Angier to spend weeks with the Gardners every summer.

I asked my mother once when I was in my 20s why she worked so hard to keep us connected with my father’s family. At first she thought the question “silly,” as if everyone would do the same. But when I pressed her, she said, “Two things: They loved us all so much, and they kept your father alive and real for you and Tim with their stories and memories.

“Besides,” she continued, “I knew only blessings would come from truly being a Gardner.”

And that truth still stands the test of time.

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