To say Tiny is a little ball of fire wouldn’t begin to cut it. From my seat as a distant family member, only seeing her every few years or so, she didn’t seem to even start slowing down until she was maybe 93, give or take. I remember hearing a story, quite a while back now, of how she went to the doctor and complained that her wrists made a popping noise when she flexed them. Her doctor told her, "You should probably stop doing push-ups." She was in her eighties at the time.
About that same time, I was told that Tiny had decided she should learn Spanish. She went about it old school, and practiced by rote memorization. She surprised a bilingual pastor when she told him she’d been studying Spanish for a few months, then proceeded to recite an entire book of the bible – in Spanish. I don’t recall which book.
Tiny is a nickname, of course, given for obvious reason, though I don’t know exactly when or by whom. Her birth certificate calls her Leila, which I think she always preferred. But by now I don’t guess that she minds so much what people call her, she’s just so tickled that they do. She grew up the oldest of four girls and one boy, in rural Kansas. She has outlived all of her siblings, including her youngest sister, my grandma, who passed away eight years ago.
Tiny herself had five children, four of whom emigrated to southern California a couple or three (or four...) decades ago. The oldest son, Lynn, started the wave, I believe. Who knows why, except he’s a lawyer, so that can explain a lot. Rod, her other son, eventually settled there after serving as a missionary in the Phillippines and other such places as dissimilar to the rural Midwest as you can imagine. Two of the three sisters, Lila and Kathlyn, also eventually made San Diego their home, with only Mari Lee remaining in Kansas, still living on the same farm where she and her husband raised their children.
Their youngest is a lawyer now, too, by the way. He works with his brother-in-law, also a lawyer, at a cozy little firm in Clay Center, not far from the farm. Proving the lawyer gene doesn’t require you to flee to California just to practice law. Kansans need lawyers, too, you know. Someone’s gotta officialize the handshakes over the split-rail fence and show us where to put our "X" on the dotted line.
Lila, Tiny’s namesake, is the only one of Tiny’s children who never married. She became an English teacher, like her mother, and the doting aunt every child wishes they had, whether they realize it or not. She’s retired now from teaching and spends many (most?)of her days with her mother, who still lives on her own, making sure she has the groceries she needs, helping maintain the apartment, taking her out on the town...
I’m kidding about that last part, I think. Though it wouldn’t surprise me. Tiny has given up the push-ups, but she still takes walks and gets regular exercise. She may not move fast anymore, but she still moves.
This will be the second big birthday bash they’ve thrown for Tiny. The last one was for her 95th birthday, when we were living in Las Vegas and could easily make the drive and enjoy the regalia -- and that branch of the family tree knows how to party right, let me tell you. We once attended one of their "tailgate" parties they traditionally hold in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot before a game. I grew up in Kansas – I know what a tailgate is. We show up and find them gathered around a lovely motor home sipping wine and serving salmon pate, nary a tailgate in sight.
You’d think, with so much family in southern California, that Mari Lee and others would be going out there all the time. But it’s actually the other way around, with Tiny and Lila and Kathlyn, especially, visiting the Kansas farm as often as they can. Lila once told me that friends in California would wonder about that, "But isn’t it boring out there?" Lila would just laugh and declare, "Not with my family!"
I don’t know if we will be able to make the Big 100 next year, and that makes me sad. It's an opportunity that I know I will regret to miss. I want to sit there and listen to Tiny recite her poetry, by memory, like she's done at every family reunion and gathering I've attended the last dozen years or so. But it’s too far to drive during the school year, and whether we drove or flew, the cost is daunting. So we'll just have to see.
It was very interesting to me, once I started writing all of this down, how difficult it was for me to try to get the details right. I really have no clear understanding of when everyone moved to San Diego and why, or in what order, for instance. Not that it really matters, I suppose, but that seemed to want to be a part of this story.
And I know that stories evolve as they are told and passed down, besides my own memory not always serving me correctly, and that doesn’t in any way make them less valuable or meaningful. At least we have stories. But I would be interested to know from my family reading this, what rings true, and what doesn’t. As well as what you might include in some of your own favorite Tiny stories.
Happy Birthday, Tiny. We hope to be able to see you on that day.