November 24, 2011

Wichitans share why they feel thankful

Sometime today amid all the food, football and shopping preparations, families in Wichita will honor the original purpose of Thanksgiving by giving thanks for our most humble gifts.

Sometime today amid all the food, football and shopping preparations, families in Wichita will honor the original purpose of Thanksgiving by giving thanks for our most humble gifts.

Most of those gifts will be seated around us at the table.

We may fight with another family member over the last piece of pumpkin pie, but we will be grateful we have somebody to fight with.

Families in Wichita are most grateful for each other, according to those who chose to share their thoughts with The Eagle about what they are most thankful for today.

Seven months ago, Briley Meek learned her father, Gale, an engineer at Cessna, had triumphed over leukemia after a battle of nearly three years. He no longer needed chemotherapy and officially was in remission. That news came on the birthday of one of her brothers.

“My happiness has still not ceased after seven months,” she said. “I become increasingly grateful for my father and my family every day.”

Each Thanksgiving, she and her father bake pies and other desserts together, a tradition they started when she was 10. When he was sick, she did a lot of the baking while he supervised.

“My father was increasingly weak. It was bad. It was just bad,” said Briley Meek, who is 27 and works for Via Christi. “He tried to put on a brave face to his family. He was tired a lot and napping a lot, and that’s when the family became concerned.”

But they know they will have more chances to share the tradition, she said.

“I am thankful for science, medicine, hope, love and especially my father,” she said.

Gale Meek, 64, said holiday baking is a tradition he learned from his mother. He wants to pass it on to his grandkids — he has six, with a seventh on the way.

“I have an awful lot to be grateful for,” he said.

Thankful for a family

Seventh-grader Emily Brown, 12, is thankful she has a family at all, and that she lives in America.

Left in a train station in China when she was five days old, she was adopted from a Chinese orphanage at nine months by Majella and Geoffrey Brown of Wichita. Majella is a registered nurse, Geoffrey a retired federal worker.

“They gave me clean clothes, an actual toilet, good food, and most important, a family — aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, even twice-removed ones,” said Emily, who attends Wilbur Middle School.

Reading is one of her favorite activities. She doubts she’d have learned how to read, or received any education at all, had she remained an orphan in China.

“And just thinking about that devastates me,” Emily said. “I can read, write, listen, comprehend and think. That’s what we take for granted every day when there are some people out there who can’t do any of those things, let alone one.”

Majella had given birth to a son a few months before they adopted Emily. Geoffrey Brown is thankful he could spend every minute of their young lives with them.

“Our babies are 12 years old now and the stroller has been replaced by a scout uniform and team colors,” he said, “but the everyday pleasures of a loving and interactive family still remain. We travel extensively and make discoveries and memories together at the same time. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

An unlikely tradition

John and Roberta Frye did not lack for family. Their problem was a family that grew too big to fit in their house for the annual Thanksgiving dinner.

So they spread the meal into their garage, a move calculated to get somebody else in the family to host the dinner.

“They thought everyone would be appalled that they were being forced to eat dinner in the cold garage with the concrete floors and unpainted walls,” said their granddaughter, Kristin Marlett.

Instead, eating in the garage became a family Thanksgiving tradition, and has remained one for more than a decade. This year they expect to have 27 people for dinner.

“My wife keeps saying maybe if they don’t like to eat in the garage they’ll quit coming. But they like to eat in the garage,” said John Frye, former school board member and retired Starkey CEO.

The family has tried to make the garage cozier over the years. They painted the floor and walls and added space heaters. They decorate it for each Thanksgiving.

Now, Marlett can’t imagine eating a Thanksgiving meal anywhere but her grandparents’ garage.

“So we continue to eat where most people park their cars and store their recyclables,” she said. “And every year it is great.”

60 years of freedom

Helen Griffin and her family will give thanks today for 6o years of freedom.

Her parents, Vladimir and Vera Czaplinsky, along with two young sons, immigrated to the United States in June 1951. They had fled their native Russia in 1944 by following German soldiers who were retreating from Russia back to Germany during World War II.

They spent seven years living in deplorable conditions in a displaced persons camp in Germany, then were brought to the U.S. by the Church World Service Agency and settled in McPherson by their sponsors, the Church of the Brethren, Griffin said.

Her father, who had been forced into Russian labor camps twice as a youth, was 51 at the time. An agronomist in Russia, he worked in a concrete factory in McPherson and died in 1975. Her mother, who will be 89 next month, still lives in McPherson.

“They came to this country, they learned the language and they made their way,” Griffin said.

Griffin, who was born in McPherson in 1955, is a pianist for Music Theater of Wichita and Wichita Grand Opera, and also teaches piano. Her brother George played basketball at McPherson High and later coached basketball at Kansas City Wyandotte.

Vera Czaplinsky, who used to clean houses, lives alone in McPherson and is in good health, Griffin said. She does aerobics three times a week and takes care of her own garden and lawn.

“I’m thankful we had a chance at great life because of the sacrifice my parents made,” Griffin said. “When you have freedom, you have the start of everything good.”

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