Monthly Archives: July 2014

Cumber Reunion Report


Gener: “I’ve already decided that Kevin is a good guy. If something happens between the two of you, I have no doubt that it will be your fault.”

Angela: “I know I’m the only one who could possibly mess up this relationship. But after seven years together, we’ve not even had a single fight.”

Gener: “That’s very impressive.”

Angela: “Some people bring out the best in you, and some bring out the worst. Kevin simply helps me to be the best person I can be. The trick in life is to find the right person to love.”

Gener: “Don’t I know it. You’re preaching to the choir.”

Out of all of the conversations I had during my ‘Cousin Reunion Weekend’, I am confident that the short chats with Gener will prove to be the most memorable. The 3rd son of my mom’s older sister Barbara, Gener is the self-proclaimed “black sheep” in the family. He has no filter, no concerns with what people think of him, and little restraint when it comes to adult beverages. He told me and Kev that he has spent a total of 2 1/2 years of his 60 years in jail (not all at once), and admits that he has made choices in his life which brought dishonor to his family name: “It’s not a good feeling when you realize that your selfish actions have caused pain to the people you love. I’ve brought a lot of heartache to my parents, and I know that.”

His brutal honesty surprised me. On the one hand, it’s easy to judge the person who never quite got his act together. On the other hand, I always admire people who take ownership of their mistakes instead of blaming others. Furthermore, I give him props for being a good parent. He was a house-dad for many years while his two daughters were growing up, and is still a proud and loving father today. His eldest daughter did not attend the reunion, but I hear that she is successful and is married to a good man. I was able to meet his youngest daughter, Andi, who is getting married this fall. She was a delightful young lady who brought her 2 dogs to the occasion, and it was easy to tell from our brief interactions that she has a good head on her shoulders. 

Throughout the 3-day adventure in the middle of North Dakota, I made it a point to have meaningful conversations like these with as many of my cousins as I could. Most of these people I had never met, and the rest I had only seen briefly when we were kids. The cousins are all descedants of the 6 children of Vic and Florence Cumber- a total of 19 grandkids in our generation. One of them, Patty, recently passed away at the age of 47, and this gathering was in her honor. A total of 13 attended the reunion, many with spouses and kids in tow, as well as a few of the aunts and uncles (my mom’s siblings.) All total, there were 33 Cumber relatives who landed in Jamestown, aka “The Buffalo City.”

Time was short and I wanted the interactions to be more significant than simple small-talk, so I knew I had a challenge on my hands, especially considering my predisposition to shyness. I suspected that any compelling dialogue with them would have to be carefully crafted. I fearlessly asked questions that might seem too personal for a first visit: “Tell me about your dad.” “Were you and your sister always close?” “How have you been doing since Patty passed away?” I genuinely wanted to learn about these people and didn’t have time to beat around the bush. I felt like Barbara Walters, trying to quickly reach the moment that might involve some tears.

Although there were no tears (for the cousins, anyway-more on that later), I had a good chance to interact with these relative strangers, and came away with the impression that they are all quite amiable and sweet. The cousin who offered me use of her hotel room when I needed peace and quiet (Kathleen), the cousins who made sure we knew the agenda (Kenny), the cousins who gave us welcome bags and cooked an awesome steak/lobster dinner (Dick and Vicki), the cousin who made a “bio-book” for us (Cris)- it turns out, Cumbers are truly good-hearted and kind.

I tried to sit next to different people at each meal, and to say yes when invited to participate in any given activity. I even agreed to go for a walk with Andi and Deb (Kenny’s wife), who wanted to take the dogs for a stroll. Andi and Deb both turned out to be in much better physical condition than I am (as most people are). I was determined to hang with them as long as they wanted to walk, even when it appeared that we were about to cross state lines. My legs were hanging in there, despite being confused about the terrain of North Dakota, which I’ve always described as being “flatter than flat”. I realized that there are a few steep hills and valleys in the area-and we chose them all for our walk with the dogs. I stopped talking somewhere around the 90-minute mark in an effort to conserve oxygen, but listened to their conversation and was still happy to have been invited.

The physical discomfort of the walk was, of course, no match for the discomfort of the plane ride, but I expected that, since I don’t fly well. What I did not expect upon our arrival at the hotel, though, was how happy I was to see these people. I recognized almost all of them from the past or from family pictures. There were hugs and introductions all around, and it seemed as though everyone in the Jamestown Hampton Inn was affiliated with our event. I feared that I might miss someone and not greet them properly, causing me to want to hug everyone in the hotel, just in case. Surely there wouldn’t be anyone besides us wanting to visit this obscure state? I restrained myself from being overly zealous, as it turned out that North Dakota is a nice place for summer vacations, and our hotel was quite full.

The most obvious way that the state of North Dakota made us feel welcome was by being 25 degrees cooler than Georgia’s stifling heat. Although we were disappointed that it was too cool for water sports, it sure did feel nice to walk around in a light jacket and enjoy the humidity-free breeze. We spent most of our weekend at one of the family cabins at Spiritwood Lake, a lovely body of water slightly less than a square mile, surrounded by trees, grasslands and quaint homes. During our time at Spiritwood, we roamed the two adjacent family-owned properties and chimed in on whatever conversation or game might be taking place. The atmosphere was casual, the food was amazing and the view was beautiful. Small pockets of socializing would form, sometimes around the drinking or non-drinking family members, but mostly around the randomness of those who wanted to plant in one spot, juxtaposed with those who enjoyed circulating about the space.

It was during this time of circulation that I found my opportunities for Q&A. Although I missed a few people, I was able to participate in captivating discussions with many of my extended family, hearing  stories that helped me to connect the dots in my own personal background. I’ve heard many family anecdotes from my mom over the years, but getting an opportunity to listen to other perspectives and fill in some gaps was truly engaging and intriguing. 

To be perfectly honest, when I first learned of this reunion several months ago, my initial reaction was not one of tremendous interest. Time off from work for me and Kev is so precious, I couldn’t fathom the value of flying across the country to spend time with people I didn’t know. Readers of my blog recall that I was tentative about the invitation, knowing the potential for boredom or awkward moments. (see “Where Have You Been the Last 30 Years? In fact, for months after the reunion was announced, I hovered around a 17% chance of attending, not wanting to commit the time and money to something so uncertain.

The thing that pushed me into the commitment zone was knowing that Kevin, Forrest and I would be traveling with my sister Lora, her husband Phil and their daughter Mary Catherine. Somehow I suspected that if the Maskeys were traveling with the Hydricks, we all stood a chance of having some fun, no matter what transpired with our relatives in the farming state. And to be sure, the time with the Hydricks was definitely one reason why the vacation was such a success. They were fun travel-buddies, supportive and good-natured, open for side excursions such as “Frontierland” and pictures with the “World’s Largest Buffalo”.

As promised, I will close with a little about a couple of the moments that saw me with tears in my eyes-the first was a visit to Pingree. Pingree is a minuscule town where some of my best childhood memories took place. Grandpa had a Texaco station and shop attached to the home where my mom lived as a child. In the 70’s, Grandpa build a new shop and a new house but left the old one standing. When we visited for vacation as kids, we were allowed to play in the empty structure, a place which filled our imaginations for hours on end. Somehow over the years I missed the news that this structure was torn down, leaving only stalks of corn growing where the foundation used to be. There was no rubble, no skeletal remains to spark any memories, and it made me quite sad.

Fortunately, our cousin Richard opened up the building referred to as the “new shop”. Although it is now closed, it still contains many mementos from the past, including old signs and parts, as well as the same old Coke machine from which we used to extract old-fashioned bottles of pop. As I stood in the strong wind outside of that shop, I realized that the town of Pingree was completely different from the town of my happy childhood memories, and my eyes filled with tears. Some of the best summer vacations of my youth took place in North Dakota, when I could play at Grandma’s old house, explore Grandpa’s old shop, and be pulled on an inner tube behind the boat at Spiritwood lake. The nostalgia hit me unexpectedly.

The most powerful moment of the weekend, though, came from Gener, who offered to take Forrest out for a chat about making good choices in life. Kev and I are always grateful for anyone who supports our efforts to make sure Forrest gets on a good path for his future, and I was touched by how much he cared. 

In the end, it is ok that my grandparent’s old homes are gone, and the cabins at the lake are different. As a result of this Cousin Reunion, I may have built something more lasting-new relationships. Thanks to some kind gestures and honest conversations in North Dakota, hopefully I gained 33 new friendships. I look forward to future conversations with all of them, and I know Gener will be proud to watch me hold on to my Kevin, and I’m grateful to him for his willingness to offer some real-life advice to Forrest. Like a good relationship, your family is something you take good care to ensure the foundations stay strong for years to come.


Augusta’s Graceful Star

This Thursday night in Augusta, Georgia is exceptionally significant: the premier of the James Brown biopic “Get On Up”. As we approach our proud moment in the spotlight, I would like to say a few words about the evening’s coordinator and an esteemed star: Deanna Brown Thomas, one of his daughters. Deanna has been working relentlessly on this event, which is not only an opportunity for our town to shine, and her father’s story to be revealed, but also a chance for the world to learn more about the James Brown Family Foundation, beneficiary of the evening’s proceeds. The Foundation’s flagship program is known as JAMP, the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils. JAMP is year-round music education crafted to encourage youth to discover their own abilities, and keep them on a positive life path. JAMP is also one reason why Deanna is such an authentic star.

Deanna founded JAMP and it is a delightful priveledge to see her face light up when she talks about it.  She explains that the program is so important because music paved the way for her dad to journey from poverty to purpose, and he would be thrilled to know that some members of the next generation are also receiving an open door. Offering this instruction to young people in the community is Deanna’s passion. The budding musicians are always learning, practicing and performing, getting a taste of the work ethic which made James Brown famous.

A Youth performance. Other photos can be seen at

A Youth performance. Other photos can be seen at

While JAMP is a compelling story, it is not what impresses me the most about Deanna. In my brief contacts with her over the past few years, I have become convinced that she is the ultimate personification of grace. She carries herself with such dignity, it seems impossible to picture the undeniable pressures ever disturbing her always-smiling face. I aspire to carry myself with such decorum one day, perhaps filled with inner peace. (Or at least a hard-core stress-management system).

Deanna and I met in 2011, when we were both recruited to participate in “Dancing Stars of Augusta”, a fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association. Followers of my blog know that I was a hot mess nervous wreck throughout this process, a personal ordeal which was abated somewhat by writing about it.



Deanna at the 2011 Dancing Stars Augusta Reception

In contrast to my frequent borderline panic attacks over the thought of performing a Tango in front of thousands of people, Deanna was the consummate cool customer, acting as though she danced in front of massive crowds every day. This is actually not far from the truth, since her famous father was known to put little Deanna on stage to dance as crowds cheered. She has only known the life of performing and mingling with celebrities, yet she never seems boastful of these stories. She will tell you she is just blessed.


Dancers with Instructors. Group shot was taken at end of evening. Austin Rhodes and Deanna had already left for the evening.

My fellow dancers and I had plenty of down-time on the night of the performance. The event coordinators asked us to be ready early for a VIP Meet N Greet, then we waited as patrons listened to speeches and ate dinner. I spent these hours alternating between the parking lot with my headphones, listening to Rhianna’s “S&M” (the only song on my iPod which helped my nerves), and sitting in the small dressing room adding more sparkle to my makeup. Deanna likewise spent a great deal of time in the dressing room, but instead of staring at herself in the mirror as I did, she sat in the corner quietly looking at emails on her phone. I commented that she and I were the only ones not out in the “Green Room” socializing, and she replied that staying quiet before a performance was a tip she learned from her dad. She stated it very matter-of-factly, as if having an iconic performer for a father was a very normal thing.

I was struck with her humility and approachability, as well as with her willingness to speak freely about memories of her dad, who had passed away five years prior. I wondered what it must be like to live in the shadow of a man who seemed larger than life to the entire world, and speculated to myself about the strategy involved in crafting an identity separate from the surreal persona of the Godfather of Soul. Does she get tired of people asking her questions about him all day, every day? Does she wish she could have her own performance career? Is it exhausting to deal with the celebrity-clingers who only reach out to her because of her maiden name?

These questions are, of course, all ego-based, and as I have had more contact with Deanna over the past few years, I realize that they are incompatible with her true self. Deanna is honored to represent her dad’s legacy, and strives every day to uphold the brand he created. She carries herself with the demeanor of a person who understands what is important in life. She never tires of her circumstances; she brings new relevance to traditional family endeavors. In addition to JAMP, she and her team continue her father’s long-established ritual of giving turkeys and toys to needy families during the holidays.

As if these pursuits were not significant enough, her service to the community reaches even further, augmenting the inspiration I receive just from knowing her. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Augusta Museum of History, which houses an impressive exhibit of James Brown artifacts, and Deanna often leads tours of visitors. During them, she shares personal stories which makes the exhibit come to life, and her admiration for her father is palpable. Her confident, articulate presentation is vibrant, never sounding like she has repeated it thousands of times, which she likely has.


Finally, Deanna blew me away when she agreed to serve on my own humble committee, a marketing team to promote the revival of the Miller theater downtown. Her dad had been on the stage as a teen, so the connection is there, but it would have been easy for her to dismiss the project in lieu of her many other commitments. On the Miller Marketing Team, she weighs in on discussions, attends meetings, and volunteers for various Miller events. Everything she does has a purpose, but is also done with thoughtfulness and -I’ll say it one last time- grace.

Volunteering at the Miller theater

Volunteering at the Miller theater

So after you watch the James Brown biopic “Get On Up”, do not forget another inspiring story: that of his daughter, who works quietly every day to honor his memory. Reach out to learn more about her talent, which is embracing what music can do for our community. Be inspired by her story, the tale of a little girl who went from dancing on stage to enriching the lives of those around her by taking her dad’s superstardom to a whole new level.


It’s OK to be Facebook Friends with an Ex

In 1983 my then-boyfriend David picked me up from work at Davison’s in his yellow truck and proceeded to drive to the other side of the Augusta Mall, stopping the vehicle in front of a dumpster. He grabbed a large shoebox from the floorboard and opened it so that I could peek inside. I noticed an amalgamation of photos, notes and cards. He looked me in the eyes, the hint of a smile emerging on his serious face. He then shut the lid, got out of the truck, and ceremoniously tossed the box into the garbage. What looked to be a valuable assortment of sentimental memorabilia was now mixed up with discarded Corndog-on-a-Stick cups, Spencer gift packaging and J Riggings hangers.

He returned to the truck and proudly announced that the box contained his entire collection of mementos from past romances. Now that he was dating me, he said that he saw no reason to keep any physical evidence of these relationships. He wanted to boldly demonstrate his commitment by destroying any connection to those who came before me. He was three years older than me and quite a ladies man, so the gravity of his gesture was not insignificant.

All these years later, I do not recall what I said, but can distinctly remember what I thought: That was a foolish mistake. It was foolish because the sacrifice made me more uncomfortable than happy. I also hoped that he didn’t expect me to reciprocate. Although my box was considerably smaller, I was attached to my collection of poems and love notes, and wanted to keep them forever. I saw no reason to discard a part of my short life story. I was not a jealous person, so I wasn’t worried that any of his exes would resurface in his life, and knew that he had no reason to be concerned about my former crushes. The whole affair made absolutely no sense to me.

I don’t recall if I gave in to the pressure to toss my small box away, but because I no longer have my early notes, I assume that I did. I don’t know if David ever regretted that audacious moment; we lost touch after our break-up and I only heard bits and pieces of his life after Angie. He has since passed away, so I am happy that I still have a few notes and pictures from my three years with him. He was my first serious boyfriend, and we were even engaged for a short time. I like to think that if he were alive today, we might even be Facebook friends, clicking the “like” button on one another’s family vacation photos.

I’m just not one of those people who think it is necessary to pretend a past romantic relationship didn’t happen. As a happily married person in my late 40’s, I am proud that the collage of my former connections has made me into the person I have become. I am 100% certain that I wouldn’t be happily married if I didn’t have a gloriously diverse combination of experiences to inform my perspective of a healthy relationship. The memories should not be dwelled on, but neither should they be tossed; I cherish my personal history.

Although I missed the chance to connect online with David, I have become Facebook friends with quite a few members of the Angie ex-boyfriend club. Networking with someone on social media is not an overly serious matter to me, and as a PR person I prefer to accept most friend requests. I find it is an intriquing way to get to know people and peek at glimpses of their daily lives without necessarily having to invest any meaningful time. So, in my mind, the fact that about 1% of my Facebook friends are past boyfriends is not a big deal. Seeing their political rants or pet videos on my newsfeed is no more consequential that the postings of say, a former co-worker or my next-door neighbor.

Every once in awhile, though, one of them will offer a thumbs-up to one of my cat photos, and I like that because I’m sure they remember how important my cats are to me. Sometimes I will click “like” on a post about an ex’s favorite baseball team, acknowledging my recollection that he was a fan. In fact, it feels quite evolved and mature when I can keep small casual connections like a Facebook friendship with these guys from my past. For example, when I see one of my exes on Facebook with his posse of small kids, I am thrilled to witness his happy, full life. I also know in that moment that the two of us were never destined to be together, since a large family was never my dream.

With a few exceptions, I am connected to almost all of my past loves and brief flings. There is only one guy in my history to whom I would be reticent to befriend, because of some borderline stalker behavior after our break-up. I confess that in my most paranoid moments, I assume I am already Facebook friends with him, imagining that he has created a fake persona to connect with me. That’s how the mind works sometimes. In reality, he likely never thinks of me and could care even less about social media. I know I cherish my past more or less than others cherish theirs, and that’s ok. We all have different stories.

I did have one ex who friended me and then un-friended me, and my hunch is that he was forced to do so by a jealous person in his life, or maybe he still harbors hard feelings about our decades-old awkward encounter. Another ex-Ron- refused my request outright, messaging me that it “wouldn’t be in the best interest of his family”. While I certainly respect the response, it is clear that he certainly gives more weight to friending than I do. At 1,300 friends, I am obviously connected to people I have never met. And, like David with his box, Ron has clear ideas about dividing his emotional past and present into different segments, cutting out the parts that are painful or tricky.

I, on the other hand, embrace the tapestry of my romantic story, a varied one filled with a wide range of personalities and difficult lessons. I look forward to the day when I am retired and can sit in my rocking chair and periodically peruse the online posts of past contacts, smiling at all the wonderful accomplishments of people who briefly crossed paths with me before I found the love of my life. I might even bring out my old shoeboxes filled with the notes and photos we all collected before the days of social media, happy that I am married to the type of person who appreciates me despite my crazy past and would never ask me to throw the boxes away.