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Ten Years in Texas

1 Sep

September marks my tenth year in Texas. The actual arrival by rental truck came on Sunday September 16, 2001. I had never been to Texas, although 2 years earlier the news director at KVIA in El Paso interviewed me by phone for an opening in the weather department. I began thinking I was destined to live here when, in the summer of 2001, Houston became a place for possible relocation.

At the time I was married and my radio news anchor wife interviewed for a job at KTRH. We didn’t tell many people about it. We had already moved so many times in the five years prior.

Ogdensburg to Watertown

Watertown to Rome

Rome to New Hartford

New Hartford to Albany

So we did our research of Houston, and didn’t make it known to most people that we could be leaving New York State soon. When the actual job offer came, and she accepted, then we shared the news. Some people we knew were happy for us. Others thought we were just moving on a whim.

In between her accepting the job and us moving, some significant things occurred. My grandfather passed away. Her mother’s health began noticeably failing. And then there was 9/11. The timing of our departure suddenly seemed horribly inconvenient, but there was no looking back.

Okay, there was some looking back after we arrived. On numerous occasions, my wife applied for radio jobs in cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago. I also applied for jobs that would have brought us closer to home again. She and I even developed a pitch for a TV show that would be shot in her hometown of Alexandria Bay, New York. So we weren’t exactly settled here instantly and planning to stay forever. But the move out of Texas never happened, although a move within Texas did occur—first by her and then by me.

Ten years later, I can look back and examine my choice to move to Texas. I wanted a change, a big one. I was not satisfied with where I was, working as a noon news producer at a local TV station. It wasn’t my dream. It wasn’t even my chosen profession. It just happened.

Houston seemed promising in 2001. In many ways, the promise paid off. Opportunities that previously appeared out of reach were realistic in Houston. I discovered new professional challenges and creative endeavors. I stepped away from TV news, except for one part-time stint that lasted a year, and produced TV shows. I wrote my first TV commercials, and began acting in commercials and films. I even started writing books, which may turn into a lifelong pursuit.

My time in Texas has also provided me with another life-altering experience. The birth of my daughter in 2005 is the most memorable moment of my life, and the joy of raising her overpowers any other experience, personal or professional, in my life. As the family’s only native Texan, she is in a class all by herself.  For her, Texas will always be home.

There is also one more valuable aspect of my Texas experience that I must acknowledge. Since arriving here a decade ago, I have met some of the most inspirational and supportive individuals in my life. Some have served as role models and mentors—even without knowing it. Others have provided support in the form of kindness, praise, friendship, even transportation. Their devotion to bettering their own lives and the lives of those around them underscores an important point for me to reflect on as I celebrate ten years in Texas. In the words attributed to Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, whose controversial and comical works as a playwright and theatre director are popular in Italy: “know how to live the time that is given you.”

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Timeshare Farm

3 Aug

As a kid, I remember a cousins’ plan to buy the LaBrake farm. The meetings typically would take place at The Farm on a holiday or a Saturday evening visit. As I recall, the discussions usually involved my brother Will, my cousin Stephen, my cousins Julie and Tammy, and on occasion we would allow younger siblings to attend these impromptu meetings. It seemed like we were discussing how all of us could live at The Farm at once, if I recall correctly. There were a lot of rooms in the 2-story house and lots of land around it so it’s reasonable to think we felt there would be room for everybody. Or maybe we talked about buying The Farm and taking turns living there. Timeshare Farm! I think anyone who took their turn in the summer would automatically be responsible for all the haying demands. Oh, I really wish I could remember the plan, and nobody ever wrote it down.

You can probably guess our Timeshare Farm idea never became a reality. As we grew older, The Farm still held a special place in our hearts, but the idea of buying it was never brought up. I suppose it was replaced by other interests we each had developed in our teenage and early adulthood years. Some of us got married. Some found a steady job in the workforce or the military. Others went through a string of relationships or bounced from job to job. By the time The Farm was being sold, not one of us had the funds or the focus to make that earlier dream come true.

This month marks ten years since I was last at The Farm.  My Grandpa died that month, and all 14 of his children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren came together to mourn the loss of our family patriarch. I didn’t want to leave. I knew that visit would be the last time I went into the house, as it was, and walked through the barn, as it was, passed through the machine shed and the garage. The whole place would be different eventually, and I wanted to absorb as much of it as I could.

The visit was cut short. While many relatives were still gathered inside and outside the house, I was getting back on the road with my wife. We would make the 45 minute drive from Lisbon to Alexandria Bay, leaving the Brown Road and taking Route 68 to Route 37 to Route 12. The emotionally-charged day would continue when we arrived at my in-laws home to discuss the health problems of my mother-in-law.  (It turns out, she would only live a little over two more years after that day.)

In the month following my grandfather’s death, my wife and I moved from Albany, New York to Houston, Texas. The distance away from family felt painfully long in the days following the 9/11 attacks, and made it difficult to visit home in the months ahead when the business of auctioning items from The Farm and selling the property was underway.

Later I would learn that my absence during that process was a blessing. Unlike my brother Will who was in the house after it was emptied, I have no memories at all like that. I can still  see how the furniture was set up in the living room and some of my favorite family photos on display in there. I can still see the large dining room table, with my aunts and uncles surrounding every inch of it on a Saturday night. I can still see the Christmas tree in the front room, beautifully decorated and visible to cars passing by. I can see it all as if it’s still going on right now. I could walk right into that house today and—

Of course, it’s not there to see. Sure, the house is still there but it’s not the same house, really. Someone outside the family owns it these days. I’ve been by it a couple times during trips to see my parents. I think I even took Aidan over there once when was very little so I know she has no memories of it.

Perhaps that’s the most profoundly sad part of the story for me. I can go to The Farm anytime, in my mind, but my daughter will never know the place the way I did. She was born almost four years after my grandfather died. But knowing her, she would have relished a visit to her great-grandfather’s farm. She would have wanted to explore every bit of it, just like her daddy did starting almost 40 years ago. I can see her wanting to help unload hay, just like her great-grandmother did for years. I imagine she would sneak into the machine shed, just her like daddy did, to play hide and seek and climb on equipment that we knew was dangerous to be around, just for the thrill of it.  She might even try to climb a silo, like her daddy and Uncle Will did—until Grandpa caught us and “convinced” us to come down. She would find some of the same books in the living room, from decades ago, and enjoy them like I did. She would mingle with her grandmother and great aunts in the kitchen, wanting to help cook the large meals necessary to feed so many people on a holiday. She would love every kid she met and ask every time if she could have a sleepover. She might accompany her great-grandfather on trips to the diner down the road and offer to help in the garden. She would have wonderful memories and the smell of Cedar trees anywhere else in the country would always make her smile and cry a little bit.

Now at least she’s been there, in my mind.

Please visit the fundraising page of my latest book project, Outside the Touch of Time, and consider making a donation. Your support will help us preserve stories of  the love, lessons and longevity of 14 siblings born between 1933-1955.

Outside the Touch of Time

1 Aug

The summer of 1955 marked the opening of Disneyland, the launch of the Guinness Book of World Records, and the fury of Hurricane Diane, which killed more than 200 people along the East Coast of the United States. The damage in its wake was estimated at three billion dollars, making it the first billion dollar storm. Although it affected parts of New York State, the heavy rain and flooding was not seen in the upper reaches of the state where my mother was living with her parents, sisters and brothers. No doubt, they heard reports of the hurricane, but the LaBrake family farm in Lisbon, New York was unaffected.

I look back to summer of 1955 because that’s when my mother was the same age as her only grandchild is now. Of course, six was very different back then. But available technology aside, the lives of my six year old and her grandmother-at-six are vastly different in other ways.

My mother at six had lived in only one house. My daughter has lived in three houses and two apartments, counting both the residences her mother and I shared and the ones we live in separately.

My mother grew up with 13 brothers and sisters. Because they were born between 1933 and 1955, not all 14 siblings lived at home at any one time. My daughter is an only child. She’s also my parents’ only grandchild.  None of the sisters and brothers with whom I was raised has a child yet.

My mother’s parents had been married for 23 years by the summer of 1955. My daughter has been experiencing the divorce of her parents for two and a half years now.

My mother had not flown by age six, whereas my daughter has flown numerous times between Texas and New York,  most recently flying from Dallas to Buffalo with her mother in July. Her first trip by plane occurred in October 2005 when we flew to New York to spend a week there.

At age six, I’m sure my mother wasn’t allowed to use the telephone. My daughter has been using a cell phone since she was a baby when she would occasionally call her grandmother by chance with the press of the right sequence of buttons.

While these differences are noteworthy, what’s more important is the shared family heritage. My daughter is a LaBrake, not by name but by blood. She has a right to hear the family stories and get acquainted with the family members. That’s been challenging to do while living in Texas. Most of the family lives in New York State and we rarely get visitors here. But there is a solution in the works.

No, I won’t be moving home anytime soon. I haven’t decided to buy back the family farm either. I’m also not petitioning the state of Texas to switch places with New England. However, I am developing a book project that will allow for a lot of family time for both me and my daughter.

The book, called Outside the Touch of Time, will share stories of the 14 LaBrake siblings, starting with their childhood and spanning decades until the present day. I plan to interview each person in his or her home in the coming months and finish the book in time for a launch in 2012, the year marking 80 years since my grandparents got married at the tender age of 18.

All 14 LaBrake siblings gather along the St. Lawrence River in Lisbon, New York during the family reunion of 2008.

Rather than conduct phone interviews, I plan to see my mother and my aunts and uncles in person. Trips to New Mexico, New York and New Jersey will be necessary as each of the 14 siblings lives in one of those states. Isn’t it odd that nobody lives in a non-New state?

Family photos will be an essential part of the book, and I’m sure I can find a relative to help coordinate that part of the work. I also plan to bring a professional camera to take new photos for the book and its marketing materials.

I’ll be bringing something else, too: a digital audio recorder. This will be the only time someone is capturing these stories in any kind of digital format and they must be saved for future use related to the book and future enjoyment by the family.

Oh, I plan to bring one more thing: my daughter. I can’t imagine making these trips without Aidan. After all, she is the next generation. I know her presence will help liven up each visit, and her own storytelling skills will be enhanced by participating in this experience. I might even assign her a few duties before, during and after each interview.

While family stories and fun facts are central elements for the book, the narrative will place their lives in the larger context of life in America. We’ll look at the rates for sibling survival in the U.S., and hear from a sociology expert about the unusual occurrence of more than a dozen siblings living past the age of 55. The research data will accompany professional observations about the factors that may have contributed to this kind of longevity in one family.

Even with a plan to self-publish, writing Outside the Touch of Time will require donations in order to get started. I have set up a fundraising page on IndieGoGo so anyone interested in supporting the project can give whatever amount is suitable for them. You’re also welcome to donate a camera or recording equipment. The deadline for reaching our goal is November 1, and interviews will commence once the goal has been reached. 

Your support is necessary in bringing this book to life, and I appreciate generosity of any kind. I know my daughter will be pleased, too. She may even want to send you a handwritten thank you note.