The Round Robin

When my folks bailed on South Dakota in favor of Arizona, most of their relatives and friends remained in the Midwest. Our mother, Evie, was a stay-at-home mother with no driver’s license and a boatload of kids. When she finally did learn to drive in those pre-seatbelt days, the warning we passed among ourselves was, and I quote, “Hold on. Mommy’s going to jerk.” Eventually she mastered the art of using the clutch, but it was a challenge.

I’m sure our mother was lonely. She missed her friends and she also missed her family—her folks, along with her four sisters, and one brother. Each Wednesday the Grant County Review, a hometown newspaper published in Milbank, South Dakota, showed up in the mail, and she read it word for word. So not only was she homesick, she was lonely. (Well, as lonely as a mother with a brood of children can be. Let’s say lonely for adult companionship.)

The neighbors stepped up. Several women—Harriet Smith, Verna Dunkerson, Lilyann Weatherford, Mrs. Whiteaker, and Mrs. Toon—would gather each midmorning and each mid afternoon for an informal coffee clatch. Occasionally kids were allowed to horn in on those gatherings, and I’m here to testify that Mrs. Whiteaker’s lemon meringue pie has never been topped. Even so, those gatherings didn’t quite fill the bill, because those women were neighbors; they weren’t family.

I’m not sure who first came up with the idea of the Round Robin. It may have been my grandmother, Grandma Anderson, or it may have been one of her daughters, most likely one or the other of my mother’s two elder sisters—Edith and Alice. They were the ones who most often seemed to be calling the shots.

The Round Robin worked like this. One sibling would write a letter, place it in an oversized envelope, and send it off to the next sibling down the lines—most likely in order of age. Each recipient would add her own letter, put it in the envelope, and send it along. (My Aunt Gladys was the one who wrote that family’s letter rather than my Uncle Glenn.) Once the envelope circled back to the first person, she would remove her letter before writing a new one and sending it off again.

If memory serves, it took six weeks or so for the Round Robin to reappear at 16 Yuma Trail in Bisbee. When it did, our mother, eager for news from back home, would carve time out of her afternoon activities to read through every one of those handwritten missives. You can bet that my old-school aunties all had perfect penmanship!

All but one of those aunties is gone now, so the Round Robin is no more, and yet, in a way, it remains to this day in a somewhat different format. n a daily basis I receive several group-grope emails from my surviving siblings, a niece or two, and a cousin who still dwells in South Dakota. We’re scattered from one end of the country to the other, but when we hit “Reply All,” it’s a good way of staying in touch.

Sometimes our email conversations recall details of family vacations in our nine-passenger Mercury station wagon. Sometimes we reminisce over ear worms and songs we sang together way back then. The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane comes to mind. Sometimes we exchange cartoons and jokes. Several weeks ago, one of my fans sent along a message with a tag line that said: “When you’re out in the sea and an eel bites your knee, that’s a moray.” I shared it with everyone because that message fit neatly into two categories—music AND jokes!

What we send back and forth isn’t all mindless sweetness and light, either. One of our sisters-in-law is in the initial chemo stages of a battle with breast cancer. She and our brother have shared photos of Kathy both with her lovely hair and now without it while the rest of us form a remote cheering section from the virtual sidelines.

So yes, it’s a new world out there, but staying in touch these days is every bit as important as it was when our mother ended up in Arizona as a lonely refugee from South Dakota. The occasional arrival of her Round Robin was a real lifeline for her.

And reaching out to touch bases with our nearest and dearest on a daily basis, even if our nearest and dearest are far away, can be a lifeline for all of us, too. And in our new version of Round Robining, nobody has to worry about whether or not their penmanship is up to snuff.