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.

25 thoughts on “The Round Robin

  1. Loved it!!
    Guess we do it now by e-mail, texts, & phone. But- – – the important thing is to keep in touch with those people we love so much. Have friends from the 3rd grade that I love & keep in touch with. Was devastated when I lost 3 of them.
    Be thankful for the friends & relatives you love.

  2. Beautiful post . I have an idea about your mother’s life and how isolated she felt. My mom was in the same situation in the early 1960’s when we moved to Florida. She was lucky that several of the neighbor women welcomed her with open hearts. She certainly needed that because she was so lonely. Our Vermont family was a close family . Wouldn’t you love to be able to read those Round Robin letters today ? I also agree that keeping in touch is still important. Honestly your Friday posts are something I look forward to.

    • Thanks for this reminder that our family needs to be more in touch. I am going to start a Round Robin with my family today.

  3. Love the reminder. Our family had a Round Robin, too. My mom participated and later, so did I. Now stay in touch via emails. Thanks for the memories. Always grand to read your blog. Loved seeing you at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, also in Lake Havasu City. Be well.

  4. I was raised in North Dakota and our local news was the Grant County News, bringing back many memories. Mom didn’t drive either and at 10 I was the designated driver. I remember driving this old stick shift Dodge pickup to go to the pasture and get the milk cows. Wow, those were the days!

  5. Oh, did this bring back memories. My mother was the 8th child in a family of 11. Sometime in the 1950s my oldest uncle, who left the Midwest for Los Angeles, started the Cook Round Robin. At times it traveled out of the country to Australia or Europe and could take 2-3 months to make the circuit. I believe it continued into the 70s. My mother diligently kept most of her letters and at their 50th wedding anniversary, she and Dad presented the 6 of us siblings, with a bound volume of many of her letters. It’s a treasure!

  6. Thanks for mentioning my mom. Our neighborhood in Warren was filled with really wonderful kind people. My mom baked really good pies and her Lemon Meringue was quite good. Mine is pretty good becaause I have recipe.

    Mom’s maternal family did a Round Robin. I included Mom’s grandmother, mother, sister, and five cousins. I was able to become a part of it in 1980’s and it dwindled as the cousins died off. It was always so fun to get that big packet of letters.
    Thanks for the memories Judy.

    Dan Smith

  7. I love the round Robin letter!
    I have 4 sisters and we decided to do a zoom call every two weeks. It started with just sisters and it has now grown to include our 3 brothers and a number of friends and nieces. It’s great seeing them on a regular basis!

  8. Beautiful post and a reminder to stay in touch with friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. I have a friend from Kindergarten who is now in an assisted living facility and I try and call her daily to check up on her. She doesn’t remember I call her daily but I do and that’s all that matters.

  9. Marvelous. I was the youngest of six. Watched my mother write her brother in Ohio weekly. My one sister in law was from IL and beloved bro in law from Indiana. My hubby was from North Dakota. In So Cal, many were from Iowa and elsewhere. The Iowa and North Dakota picnics were an eye opener for me. As a young mother, I used a camera and had a Professional pic taken a time or two. Lag time between taking the pic and actually getting the pics to mail off was unsatisfying. Love today’s instant posts of birthdays, first steps, adventures, school, etc. Fortunate to live near descendants, and other grandparents who live away finally joined FB. We all zoomed on Easter! Cousins are friends on FB, enjoying it! My mother would be so happy. She always wanted everyone to stay in touch.

  10. I am from SD and moved to Arizona 5 years ago after spending many years as a snow bird. We now are in the process of moving back to SD and becoming snow birds again. We have 6 children and 17 grandchildren and keep in touch by lots of group texts. I am also blessed to keep in touch with many of my high school classmates.

  11. Without Facebook we’d know nothing about nieces and nephews and old friends and all their kids, except for what’s in a Christmas card. And vice versa.
    Only downside? Getting shower, wedding, graduation invitations from all over the country which seems a bit like panhandling. 🙂
    My decent penmanship has degraded collaterally with increased internet communication. Thankful for 9th grade typing class. Now kids are proficiently keyboarding by kindergarten.

  12. Where do I begin with my comments? Maybe it’s a SD thing – we had a friend (Mid Rietz – you met her once) who was born in Sioux City. She and her extended family also had a Round Robin tradition. Mid has since passed away, but I keep in touch with her Robinettes via email and use Reply All frequently.
    A side note – as a native New Yorker (born in Manhattan), it was quite a change for me when Ted was transferred to Tucson. My first year here was lonely and miserable (although with 5 kids (then – now we have 8 and 20 grandkids) and a live-in mother, the desert was not my thing. One day, I realized that I didn’t have to bundle up the kids to take them to school in the winter because the sun was shining and it was 80 degrees! In one of my short stories, I wrote about rocks on the roof and pineapples in the streets (referring to the old way of roof coatings and the plethora of palm trees on almost every sidewalk). So, yes, I adjusted, and now consider Tucson my home. Don’t mind visiting NY – maybe in the summer, but again the humidity is so high then – and never in the winter. I shoveled too many driveways and streets!
    Thanks for bringing back some nice memories.

  13. When my paternal grandmother’s mother passed away, her children (all 11 or so of them) realized that they got much of the information about the family through her. They then decided to start a round robin similar to the one you described. Pretty soon the round robin would travel from South Dakota, Montana (where the family originated), Washington, California, and various other parts of the country. It would finally come to us, first in California and then in New Mexico.
    A few years later they decided to have a family reunion and then after that another. My first family reunion with them was in South Dakota. Not only was I visiting a place I had never been to but with the exception of a great Aunt and Uncle, I was meeting people I never met before. While I have 3 brothers, I had only one uncle, no aunts, and no cousins. Extended family was a foreign concept to me. My grandmother had passed away several years earlier so I didn’t even have her there. It was strange meeting family you never knew you really had but we had a good time and even managed to get into trouble. Plus I saw fireflies for the first time in my life.
    There would be a few more reunions I would attend after that. A couple in Montana and one in Washington and I would get to know who the Phillips clan was a little better. We would still keep in touch through the round robin up until faster modes of communication came to replace it. Unfortunately, those original brothers and sisters have all passed away but not before imparting on us the importance of family and staying in touch.

  14. Beautiful story …. would be wonderful to have a letter such as this for the family tree. Thanks for sharing. I so enjoy your books and have introduced them to many. My late husband read them all twice.

    Thanks for the stories.

  15. As much as I complain about social media, it has brought me in touch with family and friends. Mostly school friends I had lost touch with. We grew up in the same house For 18 years so all five of us went to the same schools. Our neighborhood was like growing up in the Wonder Years. Kids today don’t have that experience. Sadly.

    Looking forward to the next Ali book. I have one more to read and I’m done. I’ve read 60 books since March. I’m addicted to reading. Got it from my grandmother.
    Do you autograph new releases?
    It’s been a fun journey. Thank you

    • Yes, I do autograph books. In view of the current state of the world, please email me at jajance@me in order to make arrangements.

  16. My Mom’s family had the Robin! My grandfather would start it – and send it along by age as your was. It look way longer to get around than just 6 weeks. They tried a “junior robin” with the kids – never really caught on!! Nice to see we have good memories.

  17. My Mom had excellent penmanship. It never changed. She lived to be 78. One thing we girls liked was the way she signed her letters. She wrote “As Ever, Your Mom”. In the loop of your she drew a smiley face. She graduated from high school in 1934.

  18. Another wonderful blog and spirit lifting. It goes w/o saying that during these “dark” days in our country, with no positive ending in sight, keeping in touch with our friends, loved ones and family is just about the most important in most of out everyday lives. I might not see or hear from someone everyday but when I door, mostly by text these days, it really helps getting through the next day or two by diverting my mind from focusing what seems to have become the apocalypse that our country has become. Thanks JA for lifting my spirits with another heart warming blog.

  19. I now see that I should have proofed this before hitting send…:-) I guess you’ll know what I was trying to say but I’m disappointed that I got lazy and put the cart before the horse :-/

  20. This is better late than never. Busy summer as a snowbird and with the west coast fires, politics and the pandemic I took time out. As no social group exercises, I resorted to bike riding with my husband. Due to smoke they suggested staying indoors.
    Round robin is new to me. Although my mother moved away from home from up on the Olympic peninsula (Forks) to eastern Oregon which was far in the early fifties with four children. I was the oldest and five years, with my baby sister just born the month before. At the time there were party line phones. Mom says to prevent from calling daily she put a bible verse by the phone Philippians4:11 B or last half of the verse. “In whatsoever state I am, there in to be content.” Her mother Grandma Rich was an interesting letter writer. Just the little things mom says she missed when she passed away.

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