This week, I am honored to feature the Greif sisters, the amazing set of six sisters I mentioned a few months ago. Their stories will make you richer for the reading…
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
There was a popular western film made in 1960 called The Magnificent Seven. It was a story of a group of seven gunmen hired to protect a Mexican village from bandits.
There is another group of seven magnificent people, according to their mother—our mother. My two sisters, four brothers and I were her “Magnificent Seven,” her “Seven Wonders of the World.” She spoke this, and put it in writing. Dad would smile and agree, and show us in multiple other ways.
They loved us without question or limits. We loved them back just as fiercely.
This post is not about us, but about another group of seven children, six of whom are daughters. Certainly, another Magnificent Seven, even if their parents didn’t call them that like ours did. The lone son in this family is recognized both by his sisters and by me as a warrior in his own right to occupy that role, but, as our title suggests, this is about sisters.
The Greif sisters have ties to our hometown and to our family as well. Like us, they had roots on the farm outside of our hometown, but unlike us, did move off the farm into another small town close by.
Gail and Suzanne know several of them, as they lived in the same town after high school, the same town Mom and Dad moved to when they left the farm. I was acquainted with the youngest two while in high school, but I didn’t know them well. I wish I’d had the opportunity to get to know all of them.
Suzanne, Gail and I have always been quite pleased with ourselves for managing our travels, making them work; elevating them to a priority over everything else. While we were priding ourselves on this feat on one of our travels within the last few years, Gail and Suzanne began to talk about this family of six sisters who, as detailed on Facebook, traveled extensively, all over the country. That’s double our count. I was intrigued.
Several months ago, they came back into our conversation. I decided it was time to reach out to them to see if they would be willing to be featured in a post.
They were more than happy to agree.
To introduce you to them, here they are in birth order with a short bio:
Debbie: Married with 2 daughters and 4 grandchildren, just retired, lives in Owasso, Oklahoma.
Joyce: Married with 7 children, 7 grandchildren, retired PE/biology teacher, then earned a PhD, now a professor at my alma mater. Lives in Russell, Kansas.
Kathy: Married with 2 grown children, retired middle school PE/science teacher/coach, currently works with a teachers organization. Lives in Hays, Kansas.
Linda: Married with 2 stepchildren, 4 grandchildren, retired teacher, works part-time at a library, lives in Eureka, Kansas.
Patty: Single with 2 children and one grandchild, nurse practitioner, lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Shari: Married with 3 children, personal trainer/manages husband’s construction business, lives in Kearney, Nebraska.
Our mother acclimated very well to her new life in this small town when they moved from our farm in 2000. She already knew Betty, and they became closer friends, remaining close until Mom died. Our dad knew their dad as well, who passed away in 1983. Betty operated a day care in her home, and Suzanne’s daughter Julia was one of her charges. Good day-care providers are hard to find, and I know Suzanne was so happy to have her daughter in Betty’s care. Suzanne told me that our mom would fill in for Betty when she needed time for an appointment or a few hours off. I did recall this after she reminded me.
I had the opportunity to get to know Betty as well. However, I wish it hadn’t happened in the way it did. Because it is a sensitive issue, I did receive permission from these sisters to include this information: Betty had a stroke and eventually moved into the nursing home in this small town. As the treating speech therapist there, I got to know her as a patient of mine. I had the pleasure of meeting Linda and Kathy while I worked with her.
I will say only this about her: she was as sweet and loving as our mother was, and as a mother to seven children like our mother was, they were so much alike in all the good ways. And, just as our mother Liz, Betty’s full name was Elizabeth.
Their father passed away in 1983, and Betty passed away in 2017. I know this pain never really goes away, and my heart breaks for them because it must be so fresh. I am so glad they have each other, just like we do.
But this isn’t about grief. It is about living life large, just as our mother and their mother would have wanted it. And, of course, our fathers too.
These six daughters had it going even before they lost their mother, 34 years after losing their father. Before Betty had a stroke, they decided to take a little trip. It wasn’t really little; it was a trip to Branson, Missouri with their mother along as well. Realizing that, like our mother, a mother of seven children had had little opportunity to get out and see the big world. So, they took her along. Knowing that a trip for seven women would be a logistical challenge, the oldest daughter chose Branson—they took turns choosing in birth order—because it was within driving distance for most, and held a variety of activities to keep them all entertained. This would be the only trip where they stayed in a hotel—three rooms between the six of them. They realized they needed a home-type atmosphere to share space and togetherness. Every trip since then has been a home rented online.
The picture below was taken there, and it is now a family treasure. It would be Betty’s only “girl’s trip.”
At 52 years of age, I can safely say I have earned the right, at one time or another–or sometimes all at the same time, to wear each and every one of the T-shirts they are wearing in the picture below. Their dear mother joined in the fun, and their brother remained a good sport.
In a farming family with seven children, a vacation of any kind with all nine family members was as likely as a trip to the moon on a rocket ship. This was the case in our family, and in theirs as well.
Kathy, the third-oldest daughter recounted the only “vacation” they ever took as a family. This was when the two youngest sisters—Patty and Shari—had not yet been born. They traveled by car to Iowa to visit friends of their parents. They spent one night in a hotel with two double beds. Their parents slept in one bed, and the five kids laid across the other bed top to bottom.
Our “vacations” consisted primarily of the three-hour trip to Wichita to see Mom’s family: our grandparents, aunts and their families.
Like our family, they grew up with enough, but nothing extra. Like our family, they knew there were others who had much more in terms of material goods—bigger, nicer houses, fancier cars and nicer clothing. Like them, I realized we were without a lot of nice “things,” but I knew then, and I know even more now, that we had all the love we needed. They knew the same. And, like them, it didn’t stop us from enjoying our youth. We played sports like they did. We were in the pep club like they were. The only difference is that their mother was the seamstress who sewed their outfits. We hired a friend’s mother to sew ours.
Joyce sent me a message at the moment she was listening to Dolly Parton sing Coat of Many Colors. This lyric jumped out at her: “One is poor only if they choose to be.”
It is obvious to me that all nine of us sisters I am speaking of—the three of us and the six of them–know we have each other. After our parents were gone, this bond became the greatest remaining family wealth. This awareness becomes greater with age.
I recall visiting with Dad several years before they died about a family who was fighting over material resources after their parents died, and there was a rift between the siblings. I told Dad that we don’t fight among ourselves, and likely wouldn’t after they were gone because there was no considerable material wealth to fight over.
And there wasn’t. And we didn’t.
Before their travels started, two of the sisters were able to connect in Albuquerque, New Mexico when Kathy was there for a conference. Patty was 180 miles away in Farmington, and she traveled to see her sister. They relished the time alone together, but realized they needed to find a way to get together with the other four, without the other 35-or-so people in their mother’s small house. The annual Christmas gathering was their only time each year when they were all together.
“We needed some time together besides the mass chaos of Christmas,” Debbie–oldest sister–said.
Patty, who was second youngest, remarked that the older sisters seemed more like “friends of the family,” as they were so much older and weren’t around much when the younger ones were at home. The trips gave them time together that they never got while they were at home.
“We didn’t get to grow up with all the sisters in the same house,” Shari, the youngest sister said. “We had a different set of circumstances to grow up in.”
Patty concurred: “Shari and I didn’t really know the older girls.” She added that while it may have been more difficult to make ends meet before the younger kids came along, they got to know their dad in ways the younger girls didn’t.
I outlined the circumstances Gail grew up in as the oldest daughter, having no choice but to work hard to help with the younger kids. She still works circles around Suzanne and me, and while we think we work hard enough, we’re slackers compared to her.
Learning how to work together to make it all tick is a given for a large family, especially a farm family. These sisters were no different.
Debbie, the oldest daughter likely echoes Gail’s sentiments: “We were blessed because we had to work hard to survive.”
Joyce, who is second oldest, added “Growing up like this prepared us for difficulties later in life.”
They travel to stay connected. They consider it a highlight—if not the pinnacle—of the year. They get together to stay together, and to support each other through thin and thick. Growing up, they didn’t all have time to get to know each other.
Gail is the canner among us. I shared pictures of her salsa and zucchini relish earlier. Linda, the fourth daughter and middle child in their family is apparently the canner among them. Canning for her is apparently a quiet time for consideration and contemplation. Canning, which both of our mothers did as a necessity, but also a labor of love. It struck her recently while canning that “we will never know all the little things they did for us—we were too young to know.”
Increased awareness of these sacrifices and depth of their love come only after one’s parents are gone, and without these realizations, Gail, Suzanne and I wouldn’t be traveling, and neither would they. The pain of loss can only be overcome by celebrating all we gained from them.
So, we travel. The three of us. The six of them.
And, just for the record, Gail, Suzanne and I do love our brothers. We have stated that. However, there are four of them, and we have chosen to make this a sister’s only trip. Essentially, they were never invited. They do love us back, and they understand.
For the other sisters’ record, their lone brother was invited. “Too much estrogen,” he said. So, they go without their brother, too.
Gail, Suzanne and I thought we were so cool and something to behold; all three of us making it work, taking time off, finding the funds, prioritizing the travels before all else; leaving our families to fend for themselves. We never thought twice about the fact that we could travel harmoniously and enjoy ourselves, never realized this peaceable interaction while traveling is something many sisters couldn’t achieve. It seemed like a given that any sisters should be able to pull off.
Our travels and the stories we brought home—and posted on Facebook—brought several women’s horror stories of other sisters and how they couldn’t find peace, even when they were far apart from each other.
Smugly, we thought we were pretty special. All three of us. Maybe we really were the exception.
If we are an exception, then these sisters are the rarest of all finds: Six sisters who make it work, near and far. Six fun-loving, peace-loving sisters who travel—not just to the state next door, but to far and near destinations nationally—together. In perfect harmony.
As mentioned, the oldest sister, Debbie, chose the first trip, Branson in 2008.
Then, in 2009, Joyce picked Ouray, Colorado.
Only five of the sisters were able to make this trip, pictured here with the guide.
In 2010, Kathy chose Hill City, South Dakota.
Only four of the sisters were able to make this trip. Their guide is pictured as well.
Linda decided upon Healdsburg, California in 2011.
In 2012, Patty chose Taos, New Mexico.
Rounding out the first round in 2013, Shari picked Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Back to the top for trip #7, Debbie chose Nashville in 2014,
Followed by Charleston, South Carolina—Joyce’s choice in 2015.
In 2016, Kathy picked Coeur D’Alene, Idaho.
Linda chose Door County, Wisconsin in 2017.
This year, Patty chose San Diego, where they were able to visit a cousin (center).
Rounding out Round #2 will be Shari’s decision, which she just announced: Colorado Springs, Colorado.
It should be quite obvious from the pictures that their trips always include adventures. It’s no surprise that their Facebook posts from their trips have inspired other sisters to begin their own tradition of sister travels.
Buoyed by their strength and successful national travels, this would be a good time for Gail, Suzanne and me to make an announcement: our Colorado trips with the three of us are likely a thing of the past. It became obvious that Suzanne could no longer disguise her altitude headaches as merely discomfort; she simply cannot tolerate the altitude, and it becomes more apparent with each successive trip. She is not one to complain, so we knew it was bad. She was essentially immobilized for much of the last trip, so it is time for Plan B: We, too, will begin an annual tradition of traveling to a new destination each time—likely closer to sea level. And this will be a good thing. Change is good, and so is expanding one’s horizons.
This year, they will head toward our previous destination, and our 2019 trip is yet to be determined.
Not to worry that our beloved destination in Colorado is a thing of the past, or that our friends in Cripple Creek will never see any of us again; Gail and I plan to make the trip, forging on without Suzanne. And she is perfectly fine with that. Our annual trip will compensate for any adventures missed when she doesn’t go west. Plus, Suzanne has all kinds of fun without us anyway…stay tuned.
The gift of sister time spent together is the greatest gift of all. Without even polling the other eight sisters I am speaking of here, I know we would all agree with this sentiment.
There are other gifts, however. Gail, Suzanne and I began to share small gifts with each other in the beginning, typically a small token, or a gag gift that would remind us of our time together. We would collect these in the months prior to the trip, adding to the anticipation. Receiving theirs was almost as much fun as giving.
Then, the gifting grew. And grew. And grew until it became a little bit ridiculous. We lavished gifts upon each other like it was Christmas. Oh, it was fun to both give and receive, but we realized it was simply not reasonable. So, we cut back. Back to small tokens that were more meaningful. We thought this was the best way to do it.
Until we heard about how they do it.
For each trip, each sister chooses a gift that would remind any of the other five of them. A gift of reasonable means; a value they could all agree on. They exchange—drawing style, with each sister randomly receiving one gift from another sister. By design, whatever gift each sister ended up with was meant for her, to remind her of the sister who gave it.
I love it.
We are going to copy-cat them. Our exchanges will be repeat themselves sooner than theirs, but that’s okay. Hopefully imitation is indeed flattery, because that’s two of their ideas we are stealing…
As I mentioned above, I wish I could get to know all of these sisters. Perhaps one day we will all have the opportunity to celebrate our sisterhood together. I do, however, feel quite comfortable with them already, judging from some of the comments and quotes they sent me from their travels:
“Wine a little, beach a lot.”
“Take one for the team.”
“Walk away from the jewelry…”
“It’s all downhill from here…”
“It’s just around the corner…”
“Just don’t look down.”
“When in Taos…”
“We didn’t know it was ‘clothing optional.’”
And my personal favorite:
“Don’t sleep with the bedroom door open…”
Having grown up without extra material things or money, all nine of us sisters learned the values of hard work and responsibility. These traits do pay off, but not always in the time or the way we want them to. We all had lean times not just growing up, but as adults making our way. We all learned how to make it on our own, but not without struggles.
It is the singular privilege of anyone who has lost a loved one to believe in signs from them. Those of us who speak the language of loss get this. We know when they are with us; we know when they send us these “signs.”
There are those who doubt that these are indeed a sign or a message, but they are welcome to have their doubts, and we will have our faith in this kind of communication.
Patty related the story of her leanest times as an adult: when she would find pennies on the ground, calling them “pennies from Heaven,” courtesy of her father in Heaven.
They began noticing pennies on their travels, seeing them as signs that their father’s love was surrounding them. When they found a dime laying on a dresser upon their arrival in one of the houses they rented on a trip, they felt him there again, at least times 10—probably times infinity.
Betty passed away in April 2017, with all seven of her children by her side. She was buried four days later on what would have been their father’s 87th birthday.
After the funeral, they decided to go to the last house they lived in together, the last house their mother lived in. They wanted a picture with all seven of them by the house. It was set to be demolished that day, with one family living in it after them. The first round of the demolition crew arrived just after they did. The crew understood, and waited patiently. The house was stripped bare, seeming so much smaller than when all nine of them had all managed to live there together. Nothing was left, not even the windows. Except for one thing.
On the ledge where the phone had set was a rosary. None of them recognized it as one of their mother’s. The only family who lived there after them wasn’t Catholic, and likely wouldn’t have owned a rosary.
They all believe that their mother sent them a sign to let them know she was now in Heaven with their father. I believe it, too.
I wrote in an earlier post that we were given our parent’s possessions that were with them the day of the accident. In each of their pockets, we were told, was a rosary.
This sign of their strong Catholic faith, the faith they carried with them throughout their lives, remained a sign after their deaths. We all grew up knowing how strong this faith was, and now, how it lives on.
The Greif family knows, too.
Shari’s daughter drew a picture of this mystery rosary, and Joyce decided to make it a permanent sign on her arm.
Signs. You have to believe them to see them.
As I wrapped up this post, I got another message from one of the sisters. Our communication throughout this project has consisted of a group chat on Facebook—a lengthy one at that.
Sorting through the information and input from all six of them has been a challenge, but one that I was up for; a mission I am so glad I accepted. As the additional information continued to roll in over time from several of the sisters, they became apologetic: “I know we have given you so much information, and I am so sorry to add more, but…” There was never a need to apologize. I only wish I could have included everything they gave me.
I have loved reading it all, and getting to know them through these messages.
Today, Joyce told me had a car full of high-school girls on a trip, and Coat of Many Colors came on the radio.
“One is only poor only if they choose to be.” She had to fight back tears, not wanting these teenage girls to see her cry.
But they would have been tears of joy.
Joyce and Linda made a quilt for their mother—A Quilt of Many Colors, they call it. Most of the fabric pieces were from clothing their mother made for them as kids. Joyce now proudly hangs it in her home.
“One is only poor only if they choose to be.”
Gail, Suzanne and I have chosen to be rich.
The Greif sisters—Debbie, Joyce, Kathy, Linda, Patty and Shari—have chosen to be rich as well. Joyce added in her last message that they were probably the richest kids in town.
I believe they were, and I believe we were, too.
May these sisters inspire you like they have inspired us.
And may you choose to be rich, too.
This morning after putting final touches on this post, I went to my bedroom. In the middle of the floor, away from everything else, was a dime. I picked it up and put it inside the frame of this picture of Mom and Dad that sits on my dresser, holding several pieces of jewelry I couldn’t walk away from on our travels. I am choosing to see this as a sign that I am indeed rich, and that they are still very much with us. This would be a good time to mention that for as long as I can remember, our parents saved dimes, putting them all in their dime bank.
Thank you, Greif sisters.
Thank you today, and every day to our veterans and active military on this Veteran’s Day. Special thanks to my father-in-law, Marvin, who served in the Korean War.
Our freedom isn’t free, and we have all of you to thank for that.