Thursday, March 10, 2016

Spontaneous Hospitality

Since I promised my cousins I would write more stories about the family history, I recently recalled a tale that most of my cousins don’t know. (For non-family readers, you might still find it entertaining.)

My dad was the youngest of eight children. In the 30s and 40s, most of dad’s siblings settled in a fairly small geographical area that covered perhaps a hundred square miles of Texas. But my Uncle Marvin was always the exception to the rule . . . whatever the rule might be.

Marvin might be considered a middle child in the sense that he arrived about midway of the eight children. I confess I didn’t know him and my aunt Grace very well because they did not live nearby as most of the other uncles did, but he was consistently full of fun and laughter when they came to visit. They seemed to move around a lot, so it was a little difficult for me to keep up with where they lived at any given time. They didn’t visit our part of Texas very often, and we generally did not know when they were coming ~ they just seemed to show up, and the whole family would gather ‘round for a good visit while they were here. You could always see the delight in my grandmother’s face when “her Marvin” was around; her face beamed with that warm twinkling smile that radiated pleasure at even the smallest things in life. She found great delight in the arrival of this one son who seemed to be more prone to wanderlust than the others. And his brothers delighted in him as well, because he came with compelling stories of adventures and experiences from other places that captured their imaginations. He was so warm and full of fun that I found him mesmerizing as well.

One particular memory stands out, and I now find it absolutely stunning that we made this particular trip, but you can’t make this stuff up!

Uncle Marvin and Aunt Grace were living in a rather barren part of New Mexico near Farmington in the late 50s. They ran a trading post near Blanco that catered to the nearby Native American Indian population. As I recall, there was either a Navajo reservation nearby or at least a large population of Navajo Indians who had settled in the area. Most of them, amazingly, still lived in teepees. The trading post was probably the only store within many miles where they could buy basic supplies.

We knew my uncle Marvin was running the trading post but none of us had been there to visit. My grandmother had not seen him in a long while, so my dad volunteered to take her for a visit. To be fair, it’s entirely possible Marvin and Grace did not have a telephone at that point, so it might have been difficult for us to contact them first. But we would certainly have been able to drop them a note to ask about coming to visit. Strangely enough, we did NOT do that, but chose to drop in on them unexpectedly instead!

You have to understand the family dynamics to appreciate this decision; my mother was not one to drop in on folks, and was extremely conscious of not imposing on other people. She taught us girls to be considerate of others and unobtrusive. My dad’s side of the family, however, believed “the more the merrier” when it came to guests, and the doors were always open. It was a running joke in our family about the Martin relatives who popped in unexpectedly, sometimes at the most inconvenient times. It wouldn’t have mattered much except they often arrived at mealtimes and my mother would be scrambling to find enough food for the extended family. So you can see that dropping in unexpectedly on someone was definitely not her style, but dad and Grandmother did not seem to think it odd at all.

This particular summer morning, my parents packed the car and Grandmother and I settled into the back seat for the drive to New Mexico. We arrived late afternoon around 4:00 and parked in front of the trading post. It was then that the brilliant idea came to my dad to send me in like the Trojan Horse. Uncle Marvin had not seen me in quite some time, and as a growing eight or nine year old I had changed a lot, so Dad thought Marvin would probably not recognize me. I was sent inside to “ask for directions” and was to act as if I didn’t know my uncle and see if he recognized me. Then the others were to follow after a bit and surprise him.

As a very shy little girl this did not sound like a good plan to me, but I didn’t have much time to make my objections. So I obediently walked toward the screen door of the store, my ponytail swinging in the New Mexico wind. I made my presentation and as suspected, Marvin did not know me, but valiantly attempted to give me directions. I tried to play the part of the lost traveler, wondering when my folks were coming in to rescue me from my embarrassment.

Mom and Dad finally opened the door and walked in behind my Grandmother; what a surprise for Uncle Marvin! He was absolutely shocked, but enjoyed the joke as much as anyone. He took us through the store to their living quarters in the back where we “surprised” Aunt Grace as well.!

Looking back to that event with adult eyes, I have to wonder at our audacity. Not only did we just show up and surprise them, but there was no hotel or restaurant within many, many miles, so Grace was left to find a place to bed us all down and cobble together food for everyone; I think we stayed a day or two, so they not only showed us hospitality, but we potentially interrupted whatever plans they might have had. I cannot remember any details of where we slept in their tiny apartment in the back or what we might have eaten. But I do recall that it was a time of stories and laughter, as it always was when we got together with any of the Martins.

Ever afterward, when I was around Uncle Marvin, he would laughingly recall the time I came into the store and he didn’t recognize me. It became a good family joke, and I laughed over the memory of it as much as anyone.

Some of you readers may also have people who continually pop into your lives without warning and disrupt your plans. I sympathize. I am enough like my mother that this has been a hard thing for me to learn to endure. When I lived in the Dallas Metroplex, it was seldom an issue because folks there are not too prone to just spontaneously show up. I could be fairly certain that my friends would not be likely to drop in without calling first. Moving back to the small town of my childhood has changed that, and it is not uncommon to find visitors on my front porch, knocking and sometimes just opening the door and walking in! For the most part, it no longer bothers me, although if someone showed up as we did at Uncle Marvin’s place, suddenly needing a place to stay and meals for a few days, I would probably come unglued. Still, as I look in the rearview mirror of my mind and recall that trip, I don’t remember feeling like a burden. My aunt Grace may have lived up to her name and just did the best she could with the situation without letting on it was truly a burden for her. Somehow, though, I think she and Uncle Marvin were probably more unflinching and unaffected by the sudden visit than I would have been.

Marvin, like his seven siblings, grew up when the Texas Panhandle region was still a frontier. There were not many settlements around, and they were generally far apart. My dad told stories of his childhood, describing how common it was for strangers passing through the area to stop at his family’s farm and stay for supper and spend the night. His mother typically prepared extra food, knowing it likely that someone else might be joining them for a meal. I suspect there was an unspoken rule that if a visitor or family came by, the children knew the drill about where they were to sleep so someone else could have their beds. It wasn’t a question of if, but a matter of when. These stories bring to mind a verse in the New Testament book of Hebrews: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” (Heb. 13:2, NLT version)

The pioneer mindset of my grandparents prepared my dad and his brothers to practice hospitality ~ to be ready to share what they had, to be flexible enough to change plans to accommodate someone in need. How I need to learn and re-learn that lesson! I am a planner, an organizer of my time. And once I get my plans made, I am sometimes a pretty formidable wall, reluctant to alter my course to adjust to a change in circumstances. But as I remember the laughter and warm conversations at the Blanco Trading Post that summer, I am convinced that I need to remember this one thing: people always trump plans. People are more important than things, or schedules, or to-do lists ~ although I may still find it difficult to give up my brand new pillow if you show up tonight needing a place to lay your head!