By STEVEN NALLEY
Lorenzo and Marianne Crowell live in Starkville, but their children are scattered across the country and the world. Anna Crowell lives in Washington, D.C.; Jimmy Crowell is moving to McLean, Va.; Larry Crowell lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Ruth Crowell Wild lives in London, England.
Also living in England, in Whittlesey, is Erin Pobgee. Her mother, Lori Barnett, lives in Starkville, and Erin met and married her husband Richard Pobgee in England. While Barnett does visit her two sons, Bob and Michael Patton, in Albany, Ga. on a monthly basis, she rarely sees Erin more than two times per year.
But now that Christmas has arrived, not even the Atlantic Ocean can keep these families apart.
Both Erin and Ruth have journeyed from England to America this month to rejoin their respective families and continue Christmas traditions they have enjoyed since they were young.
Wild said this holiday reunion will be special because it will be the first Christmas the Crowells spend with a new addition to the family.
“My newborn nephew, Lorenzo May Crowell V, is coming home to meet grandma and grandpa for the first time,” Wild said, “and we are all excited to spoil him rotten and share his first Crowell family Christmas.”
Barnett said Erin and Richard are both flying in on Christmas Day, and she will be meeting them, her sons, and her sons’ families in Albany, Ga. She values this opportunity, she said, because no one in her family lives in Starkville.
“You hear people saying Christmas is a depressing time of year for people who are alone,” Barnett said. “I’m not alone, but I do live by myself. It’s good to know you’re going to be with family.”
Pathways to England
The forces that brought Erin to England were in motion long before she was born.
Barnett’s father was a member of England’s 457th Bomb Group, and as a result, Barnett has been a long-time member of a support association called the Friends of the 457th. Barnett said the Pobgee family was also part of the group through Richard’s grandfather, and through reunions Barnett attended in the U.S., she became good friends with Richard’s parents long before Richard even met Erin.
“In the odd-numbered years, we have reunions in the (United) States. In the even-numbered years, we have a mini-reunion in Peterborough, (England),” Barnett said. “My father died in 2008. At that point, I decided it was time for me to attend one of the mini-reunions. It was the first time I’ve been back (to England) since 1963, and Erin wanted to go.”
The flight happened to coincide with Erin’s birthday, Barnett said, and Richard’s parents brought Erin a birthday cake. Soon, she said, Richard stopped by.
“You could just look at them and tell they were meant to be together,” Barnett said. “They got married the end of August that year.”
Meanwhile, Wild’s path to England began as early as high school. In 1996, as a junior at Starkville High School, she became the first Rotary Exchange student from Mississippi to study abroad, spending one year in Vise, Belgium. She went on to earn an undergraduate degree in English literature from Kenyon College in Ohio and a master’s degree from Kenyon College in Ohio, and she became deputy chief executive of the London Bullion Market Association in June.
Wild said much has changed about living abroad in the years since high school.
“Email and Skype have made it so much easier to stay in touch for nearly zero cost,” Wild said. “When I was an exchange student in Belgium, it cost $1 per minute, so I only spoke to my family a few times (that) year, just to quickly say, ‘Hello, I love you, I miss you and bye!’”
When the Web is not enough
New technology like Skype may be helpful, but Wild said there are still things she misses about home.
“I miss downtime with family and seeing friends for a non-special occasion. That’s why I come as early as I can for Christmas to get to see them before the chaos ensues, i.e., when all my siblings and their families arrive,” Wild said. “I’m married now, so we have to share Christmas, but somehow I’ve managed to get us to come home for the last few years, especially since my dad is a cancer patient.”
Lorenzo was diagnosed in 2002 with multiple myeloma, an incurable but treatable blood cancer. At the time, doctors told him he had three to five years to live, he said, but Jan. 2 will mark his 11th year of survival.
“When I was diagnosed, I told the kids, ‘I am painfully aware I don’t have many Christmases left, and I want to see you all around the tree. If you need a ticket, I’ll buy it, but I want you to be here,’” Lorenzo said. “I told that to my son Jimmy last year, and he said, ‘Dad, you know, you’ve been saying that for a long time.’ I’ve been very fortunate. They’ve all been able to come each year.”
Barnett said she also keeps up with Erin by phone and through Facebook, and she usually visits her in England once each year, with Erin also coming to the U.S. once each year. She said this contact is still literally a world away from the amount of time she used to spend with Erin.
“I guess (what I miss most is) probably the mother-daughter time,” Barnett said. “It’s basically been she and I most of her life. We were best friends, not just mother and daughter.”
Erin said she misses simple things like birthdays, parties, visits and hugs. The longer she is away, the more she notices how people have changed, she said, and those rare reunions don’t always coincide with Christmas.
“This will be the first time for Richard and I to spend Christmas with my family since 2008,” Erin said. “Mom has spent one Christmas here in England with us since then. I love Christmas with my family. It is complete madness, but (it) is so comforting to me, as it’s just the norm. I love to come home and (find that) mom is baking, (making) sausage balls, Christmas candy, breakfast casserole (and) all the things that are so common.”
Barnett said a significant portion of her family’s Christmas traditions center around cooking. She said other favorites of hers chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter roll candies, and unique cookies called orange balls.
The family has also traditionally attended a Christmas Eve church service and opened one present that evening, saving the rest for the morning, she said, but Erin and Richard’s Christmas Day flight has changed those plans.
“This time, it’s going to be on Christmas night,” Barnett said. “Of course, the little kids, (the grandchildren who will already be in Albany), will be opening presents Christmas morning.”
After the new year starts, Erin said she will also drive to Starkville and spend a few days in town, visiting other family members en route to and from Albany.
“The drive, as long as it is, is something I dearly miss and enjoy more and more with each visit. We always stop off in Alabama to visit my Aunt Frances and have lunch with her,” Erin said. “She has been a second grandmother to me and is one of the highlights to my trip. She is now in her 80s, so each time, I try to make it a memory to last.”
Marianne said the Crowell family makes a point of waiting until all four of her children are home before decorating the Christmas tree, even if it means waiting for Christmas Eve. Once, when Anna was working in Paris, France, Marianne said Anna was slated to arrive a few days later than her siblings.
“We went ahead and said, ‘Anna, do you mind if we decorate the tree before you get here?’” Marianne said. “She said, ‘No, I just paid $1,600 to get there for Christmas. I don’t mind at all.’”
The sarcasm was clear, laughs were had, and the Crowells ended up waiting for Anna that year, Marianne said. Other Crowell Christmas traditions include scalloped oysters, Christmas vigil mass, and Lorenzo reading “The Night Before Christmas” to the whole family, she said.
This is no ordinary copy of “The Night Before Christmas;” Lorenzo said it is a family heirloom his own mother read to him when he was young. It features a four-page foldout spread of Santa Claus and his reindeer, he said, and there are also illustrations throughout.
“The eldest daughter (Anna), who’s now 36, always insists that I read it,” Lorenzo said, “and I’m glad to do so.”