Something BIG is happening here!

Growing up, I had only brothers.  They were good brothers, but I often thought that I ought to have a sister.  Later, they each married, and gave me two excellent sisters, Jill and Wynette.  I can’t imagine doing this life without them. They mean everything to me, and we love each other unflinchingly and unconditionally.

God has done a very cool thing for a few of us, and looking back, it’s easy to see that He’s been working on it for a long time.

Going way back… Our whole Hammer family story intersected at the La Mirada Christian Church.  We Hammers had been there since I was a babe in the nursery. The Coopers (Wynette’s family) came along when I was in early elementary school, I think, and then the Cunninghams (Jill’s family) came along later, maybe when I was near junior high.  Jill was in college then, and we all just thought she was the coolest (because she actually was). Wynette was three years ahead of me in school, right between Scott and Steve (my brothers), so we didn’t share much space, but it was a small church, so we all knew everyone.  Jill was our youth choir leader, and we were all in that choir – Scott, Steve and I, Wynette… everyone! We traveled, gave Jill agony, grew very close to each other, laughed a LOT, and just shared so many sweet moments. (Except for that time that Wynette pranked me, about getting Michael Landon’s autograph in Sonora.  Still not funny.)

I remember how much I admired both Jill and Wynette, as older Christian young women.  They were both people that I wanted to emulate; they were who I wanted to be “when I grew up.”  (As if.) Both of them taught me things, and poured themselves into me. The important part about this is that they did it before there was any thought that they would eventually be my family.  They weren’t doing it because they wanted to date my brothers, or because they were already dating them. They did it because they were (and are) caring, thoughtful people, and because they loved me.  I was blessed with an excellent mother (and father!), and I thank God for them. But I also believe that young people need others, apart from their parents, to model good living for them. And that’s what Jill and Wynette were to me, in my teen years.

In the summer after my junior year, Steve married Jill!  And the following summer, right after I graduated high school, Scott married Wynette!  Can you imagine, from my point of view, how incredible that was? Two years later, I was engaged, and my nephews and nieces started to arrive, all at the time I was married.  And then my babies, too… it was a (very) rapid family growth spurt. Between 1981 and 1989, the three families had eleven kids. Family gatherings were loud, fun, hilarious, crazy.

Jill and Steve lived in northern California (we were in southern California), and weren’t around as much, but Wynette and I got to spend a lot of extra time together.  We, along with my mom and grandma, invented a big Annual Shopping Day Event, which folks now tend to call “Black Friday”. We did some crazy-huge craft shows in our homes.  We would get together for birthday parties and game nights and anything else we felt like doing. We saw the kids in their church programs, and participated in each other’s lives.  We were sisters, because both of us only had brothers in our families of origin.

Then, it was determined that the South family was moving to Iowa.  Iowa. From Southern California --eternal springtime, beach days and palm trees California -- to Iowa.  Pre-internet Iowa. Pre-cell phone, smartphone, videochat, instant-message Iowa. It was going to be hand-written letters and long-distance phone calls.  And for the uninitiated (anyone under, what, forty?), that means you literally pay for every minute that you’re on the phone. Even when we lived 20 miles apart, we didn’t talk on the phone unless we really needed to, because long distance was too expensive.  So this news was crushing. We were two families with four children each, all very busy with life, without a bunch of money sitting around, with no big “travel budget” to run back and forth across the country.

In many ways, before that move, I had to “check out” emotionally.  I found reasons to look forward to living in Iowa. It was going to be a great adventure.  (Side note: It WAS and IS a great adventure, and Iowa is my home now. I love it, and I do not regret coming here.  At the time, though, it was difficult.) But I was leaving behind so many people. Steve and Jill had been back in Southern California for a few years, and we had spent so much time with their family, as well.  I can barely add this part: During that time, our sweet Cayla had been born (as I’m writing this, it’s May 7, 2018, and it should be her 30th birthday).  But in the time between us finding out we’d be moving, and our actual move, Cayla went home to heaven, at age four, after spending her whole life with a terrible disease called histiocytosis. So to leave, I was walking away from my grief-torn brother and sister and nieces, my parents, my other brother and his family, my beloved church family, my dear, dear friends, a home I loved, the state I’d lived in since birth… and the grave of my precious Cayla, who was as dear to me as one of my own.  So I checked out a bit, focused on the details, turned my mind to the future, started woodenly saying my goodbyes.

And then Wynette gave me that darned book.  Annie Bananie. That book pushed me over the edge.

Annie Bananie is a children’s book, with delightful illustrations.  Annie Bananie herself is a bit of a “pill,” and in the story, she’s about to move away from her best friend.  Here’s how some of it goes.

Annie Bananie, my best friend,

Said we'd be friends to the end.
Made me brush my teeth with mud,
Sign my name in cockroach blood.
Tie my brother to the trees,
Made me tickle bumblebees.
Promised we would always play,
Now Annie Bananie's going away.

Annie Bananie, Do you think it's good
Leaving your whole neighborhood?
Who will feed your porcupine?
Who will swing from your clothesline?
How can you just go away?
What about my sixth birthday?

Annie Bananie, Do not cry --
Even best friends say good-by.
Make some new friends, try to write,
And when you are in bed at night,
Remember you will never ever ever
Find a friend who's half as clever
You will never ever find
Someone who’s as sweet and kind
No you'll never, ever ever
Never ever
Find another friend like me.

Will you?

That darn book.  It undid me. To this day, I either tear up, or get that tight feeling in my throat any time I think of it.  It’s worse for me than “I Love You Forever,” and that one is pretty intense. For more than 25 years, that book has been on my shelf, but I do not open it.  I’ve never read it to my grandkids.

So anyway… let’s move on with the story. (All of you: “Seriously… let’s move on.”) If this was a movie, you’d see a big whirling montage of Hammer/South family events (but it’s not, so you get word vomit here, hehe). The Souths move to Iowa. Steve and Jill move to Phoenix. Mom gets cancer. Scott gets cancer. Susie gets cancer. The kids grow up. High school graduations and weddings happen. Mom gets cancer again, fights hard, and goes home to Jesus. Steve and Jill move to Pittsburgh. Scott fights cancer for so, so long, but in the end, it takes him, too. Wynette moves to Nevada. Babies happen…lots of babies. Twenty-two babies at this writing. Dad finds, and marries Londa, and we adore her. After 35 years of marriage, I suddenly and surprisingly find myself alone. Wynette retires from teaching. Our children spread out around the country.

During that 25 years between when I moved, and now, “the internet” happened. It became my livelihood, but it also became my link with Wynette. I was able to lure her on to AOL instant messenger, and that’s when we started chatting every night. Annie Bananie and her friend finally had a way they could afford to communicate, and it’s been onward from there.

People have always said things like, “It’s too bad that you and Wynette can’t live near each other,” and we’d agree. We like to travel together, we have so many similar interests, and we just click. And now, as things have happened, we’re each doing life on our own. And as we’d visit with each other, we’d say, “If only!” but then follow it with, “But your kids are there, and my kids are here… so we’ll just visit.”

Last fall, I went on a fun trip with my childhood friend Janine, and wasn’t doing my nightly chat with Wynette. During that trip, she texted me and told me that when I was on my way home, I should call her, because she had some things to tell me. (And of course, she told me “everything is fine!” because otherwise, she knew I’d worry.) So, I called her when my flight landed, and after some chit-chat, she said, “Well, with Justin’s family in California, and Zach’s family leaving to travel the country in their RV, I figured it’s time for me to move to Iowa.” WHAT. My whole life screeched to a halt. Never once did I imagine this could happen. I never even DREAMED it. I screamed like crazy (sorry about your ears, Sister). She had talked to all of her people, and everyone was onboard with it.

Annie Bananie is coming to stay.

When she was here last month, we looked at houses in person (we’d been stalking them on real estate apps for months, and I’d been doing “drive-bys”), and she made an offer on a great house.  It’s exactly one mile from my house. It closed this week. She’ll be here in two weeks.

Annie Bananie is coming to stay.

It’s not that we’ll spend every minute together. I’m still in the workforce, full time. She has interests, things she wants to do. We aren’t joined at the hip. But we can be near each other, spend important times together, enjoy each other’s families, like we did when we were young mothers. We can travel together to see Steve and Jill, and our parents and other family. We can have holiday time. We can help each other when it’s needed. It’s a life-changer.

Annie Bananie is coming to stay.

Who would have thought that wayyyy back, probably close to 50 years ago, when the Cooper family first set foot on the grass of the La Mirada church in California, where I was probably turning cartwheels, and my family was scattered around, that God would lead us here, to a place where two of those little girls would grow up and have families that are related, and would love each other dearly like Sisters do, and would live a mile apart in Iowa. Annie Bananie is coming to stay.

“’For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”