There were moments in my childhood that have lasting images burned on the mind of my soul. Many of these moments are remnants of memories from the family meetings we had—reunions they were called. The reunions were held at Christmas time in the homes of each of the six children and the grandparents’ family home in Canyon. I never knew how they decided who would be the host family but somehow the process seemed to keep us coming together.
The six husbands-fathers of the Milton-Nannie Kiker clan were fine, upstanding citizens of their communities and carried the load of work to keep their families surviving during the depression of the thirties, when the fifteen cousins were little children or not yet born. Uncles Lewis, Fred, Luther, Glenford, Charlie, and Odie were unique in their own right and each personality was strong in its individuality. They stand in my history as great giants on whose shoulders we now stand.
But I write today, September 26, 2003, of a different group. Each of these men had a wife and the couples were like some form of sainthood in my childhood. Each pair was an institution unto itself. There was Fred and Clara; Lewis and Mary; Luther and Nanny; Marie and Glenford; Odie and Victoria; and Charlie and Oneta.
It was the aunts, the women, who kept the tables filled with delicious home cooking and made sure all of us cousins were clean and clothed as well as they could afford.
Aunt Marie canned, gardened, and served the very best of “Home Demonstration Club” dishes at all her meals. I shall never forget her roasts, chickens, salads, desserts, and mashed potatoes. The two reunions she hosted in Crosbyton after Grandpa and Grandma were both gone were incredible events. There was music, continuously, and every single family member contributed something. Marie worked long and very hard to plan and bring together those two auspicious occasions. She gave of herself, unconditionally. I spoke my last time to her when she came to Clyde Sessom’s funeral in Ralls. I followed her to the car and she literally lifted her left leg with her hands, placing it inside the car. I looked into her eyes and asked, “what is wrong”? She replied, “It’ll be all right”. I think she left us with that special message…..”It’ll be all right”.
Aunt Nanny made her indelible mark on my inner picture show the time she seasoned her black eyed peas with kerosene instead of meat grease. We all ate the peas without comment and when Nanny tasted them, she gave a loud scream and said, “these taste like coal oil”! That scene I will always remember. We laughed for years whenever she would tell the story.
Aunt Mary was the fancy dessert cook. My memory about her is when she got sugar during the rationing of WWII and my mother wondered if the grocer was playing favorites. But I was with Mary once when they refused to let her have another pound of sugar so I told my Mother. I suspected Mother was secretly happy about Mary being rejected by the grocer. Aunt Mary took me to my first Catholic Mass. I always admired her penchant for stretching out beyond the limits. Her antiques and the hand made lace table cloths are part of the legend.
It was Aunt Clara who usually ran a restaurant or grocery store. My memory of her telling Nina to cook me a hamburger was one of the rare treats of my childhood for restaurant cooking was out of bounds for my parents meager cash flow. Clara made a hit with Paul when she shared her extensive knowledge of photography. That was the year our Uncle Charlie got his doctor’s degree at the advanced age of 64. Clara was the one who valued education and helped all her siblings go as far as they could in school.
When Victoria took her covered dish to the reunion, Odie was prone to brag loudly on that dish, ignoring all the rest, and embarrassing my mother. Indeed, Mother did know how to bake a fine chocolate cake, make delicious peach cobbler, or fried chicken. Farm produce was plentiful during those depression days and we all shared our cantaloupes and watermelons, peas, beans, and corn with the other relatives. They in turn gave us what they had grown and we all went home, full of food and packed with the warmth of family times together.
All those times of playing with my cousins at Grandma and Grandpa Kiker’s home in Canyon are precious memories for me. I also remember the discussions about Grandma’s asthma and Grandpa’s skin cancer.
But, the person on my mind today is our Aunt Oneta—Nedra Oneta Peal, who married Mother’s dear younger brother, the darling of the family. I can remember her first visit to our home and my father’s comments about her incredible beauty, her shining long curls, and the way she and Charlie were so obviously in love with one another.
Now, this was the Aunt who cooked! Her mother, Mrs. Peal, made the best hot rolls and, Aunt Oneta followed the tradition. I can recall the first time Paul and I visited Charlie and Oneta after we married. We had gone to their home in Universal City in preparation for attending a conference with them in Florida. Paul was astounded at the amount of food Oneta had prepared, and the delicious taste of all of it. She was more than a good cook, as were all the Kiker Aunts.
Oneta was a loving caring woman who was always keenly interested in her family connections. She didn’t just ask about the family as a group, she was wanting to know about each one as an individual. She wanted to hear every detail. Even when I spoke with her as she neared her passing, she asked me about my family. And she listened when we told her about them. She had opinions born of caring about each of us and she was courageous in her voicing of her notions about what we all needed. Her involvement with all she knew was profound and based in heartfelt love for those around her. She was generous, caring, talented, and had a heart made of purest gold.
The special memory I hold of Oneta is in the Christmas season of 1944 when my parents had left to move to Weslaco and I was in my freshman year at West Texas State College. I couldn’t go to Weslaco for Christmas because the semester was not yet over. It was Oneta and Charlie who hosted me during the holidays before Christmas. Uncle Lewis and Aunt Mary took me to Quitaque on Christmas day, returning me to Oneta’s care after that. When the holidays were over, Charlie drove me to Canyon from Amarillo in Grandma’s Model A Ford. That was a significant event and illustrated the generosity and caring that was typical of Oneta and Charlie.
I treasure these memories and acknowledge with deep gratitude the heritage the Kiker family passed on to us who remain. I am writing these thoughts on the day of Oneta’s funeral. Losing the last one of the special twelve represents some sort of monumental milestone. I think we all will realize in the days to come the meaning of their lives and the heritage they gave to us. For that, I am humbled and full of gratitude.