Today marked the lost of my first sibling, Terri Hoffman (Congleton). We held her funeral in Deer Trail, Colorado where she lived most of her adult life. I had the opportunity to share a tribute for her.
As the crowd funneled into the fairly new school building and auditorium, there was a sea of blue and orange. Everyone was invited to wear Denver Broncos gear in her honor since she proudly cheered on the home team. And honor her they did since close to 90% of those that attended did so.
After the pastor settled us in and my nephew kicked things off with a tribute song, I went to the podium to share some memories. But, before I shared my memories, I informed the audience that I was wearing a Broncos shirt for the first time. (Side note, I never liked or rooted for the Broncos even when I lived in Colorado.) I also made sure to mention that while I wouldn’t be rooting for the Broncos anytime soon, I did plan to wear my Broncos shirt again (in her honor.)
I started my tribute by sharing a paragraph from Chapter 5 of my memoir, NEVER SETTLED when I was about 6 and Terri was about 12.
Terri, my oldest sister by six years, fell in love with REO Speedwagon’s, “Hi Infidelity” album. We spent many days singing Take it on the Run together using her hairbrush as a microphone and enjoying the music. Terri had this bright red hair and such a fun, enthusiastic attitude. She had freckles spotting her whole body as numerous as the stars in the sky. Some people complain about this type of complexion, being red-haired and full of freckles, but she wore it well! She was so social and made music so much fun. She was so innocent in life and took things as they came. She was usually the one to get all of us kids together to have some sort of singing or dancing contest to the latest hits.
I went on to share this following lengthy story from Chapter 15…
Initially, when we moved back to the plains of Colorado, we moved to a very small town called Deer Trail. Deer Trail is the Home of the World’s First Rodeo if that tells you anything about the kind of town that it is. Most of the streets in the town were dirt. Not gravel, but dirt. And dusty. The rodeo grounds sat at the northwest outskirts of town and the K-12 school sat at the southwest edge of town. We settled down just a few blocks away from the rodeo grounds in a small trailer court nearby. This was where I first began to become a big fan of music myself, as I finished out the seventh grade here.
Deer Trail was a small, public high school that housed a community swimming pool. I only had eight total classmates in my grade at Deer Trail, so coming by friends was a bit more difficult. These small town kids were only into cows or basketball or both. I was not. They had all grown up with each other for the past eight years of school. I had not. However, the one area I may have been able to connect with them was music. Due to my dad’s influence, my musical tastes coincided a bit, as my favorite artist was Glen Campbell and I loved the song, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” That is, until my older sister, Terri came home.
Terri graduated high school with her foster family the year before and spent the following year at a community college in Indiana. She decided that wasn’t for her after her spring term was complete and she returned home to live with us in Colorado for the first time since Christmas of her freshman year of high school. I continued to be the family chef, but Terri helped out also; making pizza and brownies as her specialty. Another of our family favorite meals was sausage gravy and biscuits, but Terri introduced us to her version which included chocolate gravy instead. I hated it, but others in the family enjoyed it.
“You’ve got to listen to some better music!” Terri exclaimed. She hated my Glen Campbell. He wasn’t so popular in southern Indiana in 1985 when she graduated high school.
“Well, what else would I listen to?” I responded, not really knowing many artists or band names.
“Johnny Cougar, for one!” she said proudly. “Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Bryan Adams,” she continued.
“Well, put them on. Let me hear ‘em.” We had been making pizza for dinner and Terri had just placed the pizza pan in the oven and was getting ready to put some brownies on the upper rack. She placed them in the oven and ran down the hall of our trailer. She went back to her room that she shared with my younger sister, Shelby. She returned with her boombox and a few tapes. She slid a tape in the cassette slot and pressed play. The boombox erupted with, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper and she started dancing all around the kitchen.
Terri had this way of just letting loose. She could fully live in the moment and enjoy music or the company of friends. I couldn’t believe the years we had lost without her and I was loving getting to know my sister again. I imagined how much fun she was to hang out with as a friend in high school. She often talked about her friends from that time, confessing stories of their parties and activities. I wished I had been there to experience it with her. I also wondered what it was like to stay in Loogootee and experience a somewhat normal life for four years. The song ended and she stopped dancing.
“Here’s another great one,” she said as she pulled the tape out of the boom box and replaced it with another. “Summer of 69” by Bryan Adams filled the room.
“I got my first real six string…” Terri began playing air guitar and rocking around the room, singing every word. “Bought it at the five and dime… played it ‘til my fingers bled… was the summer of 69!”
Her boombox blared at the top of its lungs. That was the only way to listen to music in our house. We didn’t just want to hear the music, we wanted to FEEL IT! And feel it, we did.
Terri continued to exchange tape after tape, introducing me to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and Toto’s “Africa.” We jammed and laughed and had a great time. Suddenly, we noticed smoke coming from the oven. We were having so much fun we didn’t even notice the burnt smell of pizza and brownies emanating from the kitchen.
“Oh, crap!” Terri yelled.
“Dad’s gonna kill us!” I screamed back. Terri opened the oven, grabbed a dish towel off the counter top because we didn’t use oven mitts. She quickly reached into the oven with the dish towel and pulled the pizza out. She tossed it onto the counter since the heat was searing through the thin dish towel. Then she quickly grabbed the brownie pan out and threw it onto the counter, as well.
“Oh my gawd,” Terri said, “What are we gonna do?!” I stared down at the charred remains of the pizza and brownies and wondered if any of it was edible.
“Do you think we could eat any of it?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Terri said and then went into our utensil drawer for a pizza cutter. She pulled one out after scurrying through the drawer for a few minutes.
“Let it cool,” I said. “We should try it in a few minutes. We’ve got to get these windows open and get this smoke and smell out. Dad’s gonna be home soon.”
We quickly scurried to the windows and rolled them open. The windows opened by a hand roller that you twisted counter clockwise to rotate the window panes up while keeping the bug screens in place, similar to an RV. It didn’t provide much relief from the smoke since the window openings weren’t very large. I opened the front door and Terri went back to the hallway where a box fan was blowing air through the house. She grabbed the fan, unplugged it and brought it near the front door. We strategically aimed it out the front door and plugged it back in. Smoke began to roll out the door, but we didn’t know if it was going to be quick or effective enough.
“Dad’s gonna be home soon!” she said, unsure of what would happen. Terri was an adult now and Dad was treating her quite well since we hadn’t seen her in so long. But we didn’t know how Dad would react when he got home. Terri took her boombox and tapes back to her room and I started cleaning the kitchen of the extra mess. We scurried as quickly as possible, eliminating all of the reasons we might get in trouble besides the burnt pizza and brownies.
“Oh, no!” I shouted, “The flies!” I pointed to the front door as I noticed flies coming in from outside. Flies were extremely prevalent in Deer Trail. And Dad hated flies in the house. Terri closed the front door and started to set the table for dinner. I grabbed the most recent Denver Post and wrapped up a couple of sections into a homemade flyswatter. I quickly moved throughout the kitchen and living room swatting every moving thing I could find. I knew I had to get rid of them before Dad got home.
Not fifteen minutes later, the front door opened and Dad stood in the doorway. I sheepishly looked up and nervously wondered what he would notice and how he would react.
“What the h*ll happened here?!!” Dad exclaimed. Terri stood in the kitchen near the front door and responded first.
“Our timer must have broken. We burnt dinner,” Terri said apologetically.
“When are you guys gonna get your sh*t together?” Dad asked and shook his head. He walked over to the counter, looked at the scorched pizza and noticed Terri had tried to cut it. He reached down and grabbed the pizza cutter with his big burly hands. He rolled the cutter onto the burnt pizza and started laughing.
“You’re gonna need a chainsaw to cut that pizza!” he said. He reached over, grabbed the butter knife on the counter by the brownies and attempted to place it into the hard and blackened brownies. “You got a hacksaw?! We need a hacksaw to cut these brownies!” He laughed. So, we laughed. Our emotions were running rampant inside of us, but we let out a barrage of chuckles.
“Terri, I don’t know what they taught you in that foster home, but Shawn had his sh*t together here and knows how to cook. You make Texas Chainsaw Pizza and Hacksaw Brownies!” He just laughed so hard as if it was the funniest thing he ever heard. We laughed with him because we knew this all could have gone down so very differently.
I concluded the eulogy with this reminder.
Terri was simple, sweet and fun.
I am thankful I got to know her and spend time with her.
We all hugged, cried and prayed together.
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