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Fresh and Flourishing – And Francis Can Drive, Too

April 5, 2024

Growing up during World War II in hardscrabble Milano, Texas, where honky-tonks, cotton and watermelon sprung forth, my Aunt Fran was acquainted with hardship. “My grandmother made my sister and I dresses out of feed bags,” she recalls, not a hint of embarrassment in her voice. “We went to school wearing them. And it was fine. We were so blessed.”

It’s as obvious as a steaming bowl of Texas chili (the official recipe leaves out beans and rice) that this sweet soul’s own struggles were the inspiration behind the unflinching devotion she has toward those around her. While way too many of us give little thought to American sailors at sea, the unhoused, or food insecure, it’s not in her nature to erase the conversation and carry on with their lives. That would be too easy.

I love talking to her about how she got the idea to start collecting money from people in the community and sending ‘care packages’ to sailors out in the vastness of the oceans, in undisclosed locations known only to Pentagon brain trusts. “My nephew Don used to talk about how lonely it was as a soldier,” she recalls softly, that down-home Texas twang coming through. “They want things they get at home, the items that we take for granted. But they can’t just run over to Walmart and pick them up. I would get depressed, too, if I were in that situation.”

That reality, which haunted her every waking moment, she confesses, served as a call to action. With an eye on replenishing barren and nearly barren supply shelves, she jumped in her car and made a beeline for Sam’s Club near her home in Clearwater, Fla. “I bought toothpaste. I picked up shaving cream. Socks and underclothes. Oh, and extra T-shirts.” Her former husband, a veteran, “always wore a T-shirt under his uniform.” Never excluded from the list was candy. “Any kind will do.”

Working in a veil of government secrecy, Aunt Fran did manage to learn that each ship carried a crew of 450 sailors, 100 of them women. “One guy on board opens the box and hopes there’s enough for the whole group. They’d really be lonely if women weren’t around,” and vice versa. “Everyone needs a support system, no matter where God puts you.”

Seventeen years ago when she started the campaign, Fran would gather toiletries and such in regular size boxes. Then, after paying $11.20 in postage, along with leaving a batch of her famous and fresh chocolate chip cookies for post office staff, another shipment would be on its way. For years, she recalls, it stayed at that price, and she thought it reasonable if it meant making such a heartfelt connection with “those folks who are ready, willing, and able to put their lives on the line in a moment’s notice. It was the least I could do.”

But things never stay as they are, she declares. “Later, I discovered the price per box had increased to $23. It doubled!” That left her disillusioned. She wasn’t about to let her government get away with it. So she sat down at her computer and fired off a “firm but civilized” letter to the Secretary of Defense. “I felt it was important to register my unhappiness. I waited. No answer.” She fell silent for a few seconds so that profound inaction and its bitter aftertaste could wash over us. “I’m proud to be an American,” she proclaims. “Still, we have so many problems facing us. I can only conclude that the decision makers in DC don’t give a darn about the public – or our soldiers.”

One of her best qualities is her ability to pivot from one outreach to another. The last Sunday of each month, like clockwork, my aunt coordinates a food drive at her church. “We set a box out in front of my church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox. “We take healthy food to the food bank, but you must sign up. I’m sorry, but no spices. These people want real food to put in their mouths.” Each individual gets one bag of groceries; families get two bags.

 

She heard about one guy who showed up in a Cadillac. “He wanted to know if one bag was all he got.” Aunt Fran could have gone on the dark side here, but – no way. She’s always willing to cut people slack. “Maybe the Cadillac was somebody else’s car.”

There are dozens of people scattered across the Gulf coast of the Sunshine State who love Aunt Fran. Her decades of focused labor has won her recognition. She’s served as a speaker at charitable events. Earlier this year, at a parade, she rode in a top-down convertible.  She is a refreshing, unbendable light.

Every Sunday morning, she makes the short drive to church, where she claims a seat in the front pew. “I’m the first one there. I love the Orthros, how it’s so quiet. It invites meditation, surrounded by our beautiful arrangement of icons.”

Once, as Aunt Fran and her husband, Jimmy, turned onto their street at their sprawling retirement community, ‘On Top of the World’, he was captivated by what he saw on the marker they had passed a thousand times. “Hey, Fran! Look, sweetheart!” he screeched, slowing down below the sign for a closer look. “We live on Franciscan Drive. Now look at the word again and sound it out slowly. “It shouts ‘Francis CAN Drive!’”

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