Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Wind Beneath My Wings

In kindergarten the very first friend I made still remains one of my best friends till this day. Karen Barrell and I hit it off from day one and still do. We've been through everything two friends can possibly go through together. We've endured more pain and loss at young ages than most people will in a lifetime. Her losses were my losses and my losses hers. That's how it is when you're best friends.

Being friends with Karen has been a gift. Because being friends with Karen means being friends with her twelve siblings. Yes twelve. Karen is one of thirteen children. And I count all of them (well most of them) as a good friend. At the root of all of these kids is the one of the strongest and most influential woman I have in my life, Mrs. Barrell.

As you can imagine, Mrs. Barrell has seen it all. I always thought a reality show on her raising these kids would have been awesome. Except there wasn't such a thing back then. But going to the Barrell house as a kid was a reality show, we just didn't know it. It really was the greatest place ever. You might think that with all those kids, Mrs. Barrell wouldn't be up for having "play dates". Nope, that's not how she rolled. Every damn kid in the neighborhood was over there. Always. The pool in the backyard seemed like Lake Michigan to a little kid. It was always a guaranteed good time. And sleepovers there were even better. I mean when you have 13 kids who the hell notices when there are a few extras?

I can remember my mom telling me that my brother Juan went over there one day and Mrs. Barrell called her to make sure Juan liked chili because that's what she was making for dinner. My mom said she has thirteen kids of her own and she's worried my kid won't like what she was making for dinner. That's just Mrs. Barrell. She had thirteen of her own, but always made you feel like you were number fourteen. It's a great feeling. Another time, Devin Barrell was over playing hockey in our basement and cut his head open. When Mrs. Barrell got there the first thing she said was, you better not be getting blood all over this house. Not, oh poor baby, are you ok? Don't worry. Mommy is here now, I'll take care of you! She didn't have time for that.

Another memory of mine was having lunch over at their house and Mr. Barrell whipping up some Spam sandwiches. I was in heaven. I had never had such a delicacy. Nor had I ever seen a dad cook. I must add here that I thought the Barrell's we very wealthy. I mean you had to be to have thirteen kids, right? And they had an upstairs in their house, the only people I knew that did. So that meant they had the big bucks in my eyes. Anyway, after eating this amazing sandwich, I went home and begged my mom to buy Spam. She never did. So I thought it must be really expensive and we couldn't afford it, like the Barrell's could. You know, because they were rich.

Now that I have kids of my own I think of Mrs. Barrell on a daily basis. How the hell did she do this? Last year, I finally asked her. The first thing she said to me was she had a great man beside her every step of the way, just like I do. Whoa. Now that's a compliment. Mr. and Mrs. Barrell had a great marriage. You just wanted to be around them. After my parents died, it brought me great comfort to be around them. They reminded me so much of my own parents and the love they had for one another.  I remember asking them both if they had always planned on having thirteen kids. Their answer? No we planned on twelve. Oh, only twelve? Yes that's much more realistic.

Now that I'm a mom, I look at Mrs. Barrell in a totally different way. She has lived through plenty of heartache. She had to do the unthinkable and bury one of her own children. Every mom's worst nightmare. And it was her youngest, her baby. After an insane battle with cancer. I watched her every step of the way in total amazement. She even gave the eulogy at his funeral. I knew that day that I wanted to be just like her when I had kids. It was no doubt the worst day of her life, yet she had the strength to get up and eulogize her son like no one else could. My own dad died the very next day. And even though they had just buried their son, they walked right into my Dad's funeral and came up and hugged my brothers and I to let us know they were here for us. Hugs that really meant something. We had them in our lives no matter what. Even though we were now orphaned, we were not alone. We knew we were loved.

When Mr. Barrell died a few years ago, Mrs. Barrell lost her bestie. It was hard to watch. She was alone. After the funeral, everyone went back to the Barrell house. When I saw Mrs. Barrell I said, wow that was a great funeral. The eulogy was awesome. Her response was perfect. It would have been a hell of a lot better if we could have just said all of those things at his birthday party this year. Um, yeah, that would have been cool too.

Last week, Mrs. Barrell moved out of the house so many of us called home over the years. A very emotional day for sure. All the memories in that house. All of the legendary St. Patrick Day parties. The singing, the dancing. The laughter, the tears. All memories that will stay with so many of us forever. It truly was a gift to be part of such an amazing family. And even though my mom is not here again this mother's day, I count myself lucky to have Mrs. Barrell in my life. Thank you for everything.

*Some names have been changed so the people I'm talking about don't know I'm talking about them.


  1. The Barrells are wonderful people - and so many neighborhood folk have awesome memories of that glorious house (including my hubby)! Best wishes to her on the move and all that comes next!

  2. you should so write a book! I love, love, love your stories. I remember your mom (GOD love her) telling me you called her "Mommy Dearest", she loved it!!!
    Love u, Sue McCann

  3. There is no more legendary family in that neighborhood than the Barrells.

  4. Another really funny but really touching piece! I hope you don't mind me stalking all of your stories and I've been sharing via email with some friends and fam.