What a Family Looks Like

Elaina Avalos, Lacey Mays

I was born an entertainer. Not like a singing and dancing entertainer (the whole world thanks God for this little bit of grace), but an entertainer just the same. There’s no one that can throw a party like me. I’m one hell of a cook. I pair wine like it’s my job. I set a table that’s Instagram worthy. Someone should pay me to do it. Tonight will be beautiful. But it won’t just look beautiful. I live for the joy that comes from knowing how at home my friends and their kids feel in our home. We do this once a month and have for years on end. They all met in college or at least during those years. I came along a little later. We’ve gone through our hard days and years, but we’ve stayed together. We’re thick as thieves. While it’s not unusual for us to break bread, there is something special about tonight. It’s in the air – buzzing and lighting up the place – like fireflies in the night sky. We alternate and have dinner at other friend’s homes, but we tend to gravitate here more often than not. Our home is nestled into the sweetest valley you ever did see, just outside the city limits of our mountain town. The day we found this place, I knew it was ours. I knew it wasn’t just any old house. We’ve collected people – mostly kids over the years. They come and go. I lost count of the number of Andrew’s players that have lived here for a couple of weeks, six months, or a year. He doesn’t even ask me anymore because he knows I’ll say yes. I usually get a text – something along the lines of Add feeding another large human to the grocery list. And then . . . it’s so. They walk in with their duffel bag or a backpack and a “thank you, Mrs. J.” When the situation at home simmers down or their extended family opens the door, they go on their way. When we bought this house, my husband thought I was crazy. It’s a lot of house and land. But he gets it now. You’d have to pry this house from our cold, dead hands now. We adore opening our home like this, in spite of the chaos.

But back to tonight. It’s not unusual on one hand. On the other, last week our world was rocked when the eldest child of our five families suddenly returned home after a handful of years of wandering and drugs, and gosh, we don’t even know the whole story yet. We wondered if we’d lost her forever. We lost complete track of her two years ago. She didn’t show up at her parent’s house last week. She came here. She came here because she knew we’d open the door without questions. And she needed to calm her anxiety before she saw her mama and daddy. So tonight, we celebrate Sadie coming home. She’s 19 now, clean for nine months, and ready-to-pop pregnant, with the first grandchild to grace this crew. My heart is filled with the best kind of joy. It’s the joy that comes when your friends are gloriously grateful and happy. But that’s not all that’s happened to our weird clan, since we last gathered here. My husband and I have some news to share – news we’ve kept quiet for longer than I’d planned. I can’t wait for them to get here.

A few minutes before everyone arrives, I step out onto the back deck to make sure everything is just like I wanted it. Our table – two together – to make room for all of us and our wild children, sits in my favorite spot under the Oak trees. Andrew – who is a saint, by the way – hung lights and lanterns all over the yard last week. We bring them in during the winter. Now that the weather has finally turned, he did his yearly duty. Which is to say, that he put up with me saying, “Wait, can you move that one a little further to the right? It doesn’t look good there.” This goes on for hours until everything is just right.

He is the best man I’ve ever known. And not just because he can patiently handle me, my lights, and all my crazy things. The thing is, he does it as if it’s no load to carry at all – which makes me love him all the more. He is the best thing to ever happen to me. As I survey the yard and our handiwork, the backdoor shuts. I’m sure he’s come to check on me. This yard is like one I dreamed of when I was a tiny girl, living on the distant hopes of what might someday be – as I beat back the reality of the life I was born into. “Hey,” he says, slipping his arm around my waist. He kisses me on the cheek.

“Hey back,” I say. “How was practice?”

“Eh. Could’ve been better. But it’s early. It’s always this point in the spring when I question why I’m still coaching.”

“You’re still coaching because you cannot help yourself.”

“True. Everything looks perfect as usual. You’re the Queen. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready. And thank you. It is lovely out here, thanks to you. It’s the lights. You smell good, by the way. You trying to seduce me?”

“Perhaps. This is your favorite, no?”

“I mean, if you want to be technical about it, yes. You should know by now it doesn’t take cologne to seduce me. But okay.”

Andrew laughs at me and pulls me a little closer. For thirteen years of my life, I have loved this man in our darkest and best days. For all the years before that, that I could dream and wish and pray about what my life would look like someday – I wished for him. He whispers in my ear, “I love you, Sweetness.”

“I love you, too.”

Before I can say anything else, Carter yells out from the kitchen, “They’re here!” Our other three banshees join in the chorus – as if they haven’t all seen each other at school or soccer practice, or the last sleepover. I let the kids take over because there’s no point at trying to beat them to the door.

“Shall we?” Andrew asks. He knows me well. I’m ready to pour drinks and get the party started. He takes my hand, which is still the sweetest thing to me. Together for thirteen – married for ten and it seems like we just met sometimes. We’re just walking inside our own house, but he’s always near – when he can be anyway. He knows how much it means to me. People often comment on this. You two are so cute, they say. You still act like newlyweds, is another one. Perhaps. But they don’t know the battles and wars we’ve raged to get here. You won’t find either one of us taking the other for granted not after the work it has taken to get here. So, when we’re standing in a room full of people, we’ll be together as much as we can – usually with his hand on the small of my back. That’s my absolute favorite. Or when his perfect hands reach for me. When he’s across the room talking with friends or we’re at one of his player’s parent’s homes and I look up and catch his eyes on me, it’s not lost on this old girl, what a gift he is. He holds the door for me as four of our five best friends in the world walk into the kitchen. Carter and Brad are already running off toward the yard.

“Stop running!” Three of us say in unison. Katie shakes her head and then reaches for me, hugging me tighter and longer than she has in ages. It’s the relief. I know it. When we pull away, I hug Sadie. Her pregnant belly is in the way – but I hold onto her just the same. This beautiful girl disappeared on a frigid November night, after the football championship game. She has been forever and constantly in our prayers and close to our conversations. Unlike some who might not want to talk about our worst fears for a missing teen, we let it all hang out. Whether it was stories of her fierceness as a toddler or someone quietly saying, just above the noise of our conversations, “Sadie would love this,” she was always close to us. We breathed prayers for her when we lost the ability to speak the words.

“You are beautiful my girl,” I say to her.

“Thanks Aunt Lacey. I feel like a cow.”

“Well, you’re a beautiful cow,” I say. She laughs at me and we all smile in unison, as if on cue. Her laugh is big and gravely – which has never fit with the tiny fairy girl she’s always been. Her laugh and voice have always sounded like she should’ve been a chain-smoking waitress at the Waffle House and not the tiny human that carries that big laugh. It was my favorite thing about her when I met her the first time, when she was just six years old. I love her so. “What can I get you to drink? Lemonade? Tea?”

“I’ll just have some water for now, thanks.” And then I take everyone else’s orders. Katie steps in and helps me pour drinks. Our fifth couple – always late to every party – finally joins us. We don’t even bother teasing them about being late anymore. They can’t help it. They’ve tried. It’s just not in the cards for them. Bo – Katie’s husband, was a Marine. He used to tell them to be everywhere a half-hour ahead of time. But that eventually stopped working, too. We love them anyway, even if we are perpetually behind schedule because of them.

I can’t hear myself think. Between the kids and our best friends catching up or talking about their day, it’s just a mess in here already. I love it with all of my heart. I lean up against the counter and close my eyes a second. When I was a kid, I grew up in the worst way imaginable. My parents were drug addicts and terribly abusive to each other. We lived in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. The only reason we even had a house was because it belonged to my grandparents. When they were at their worst, I’d hide in my closet and dream about my someday life. My daddy – Bobby Mays – never had a chance. He’d grown up worse than I did. My mom – Donna – was the exact opposite, however. She entered this world with a silver spoon in her mouth. It wasn’t enough to keep her away from the drugs that ravaged our county and countless families all around us. When they were getting high or hitting each other or they’d have their gross friends in our home, I’d hide for hours on end, with my flashlight, and pour over my books. My favorite was a picture book of prayers for kids. I memorized those prayers and the beautiful art on the pages. One of the prayers took up two pages. It had a gorgeous drawing of a home and yard covering both pages There was lush green grass, beautiful trees, and a picture-perfect house. A little girl, barefoot, wearing a sundress and carefree, was running in the yard. Though I couldn’t speak these dreams to my parents, I whispered them to a God that I kept hoping would hear me. It was in that closet, deep into Pamlico County, North Carolina that this vision in front of me, took shape. I mean, not these exact weirdos. But something like it. Our kids, our lives – this sharing of life – I’d prayed for it and hoped for it for as long as I knew how. And this house, it’s just a larger version of that artwork in my children’s book of prayers.

“Shall we head outside?” Andrew says. I open my eyes and look up at him. Of course he’s here next to me. He picks up his beer from the counter and with his other hand, takes mine. We head outside. The clan follows us. Until the food is ready, everyone is seated around the deck, talking, laughing, and enjoying the adult beverages and warm weather. When the oven timer goes off, we gather up the food and head out to the table. Everyone gets situated – after negotiating with arguing children about where everyone will sit. We have sixteen kids total, between us. That’s right. Sixteen. They’re not all here each time. The older we get, the older they get. Our older kids are often busy with work, sports, cheer, or dance. But all of the littles are here – which is still quite a lot of crazy.

The laughter and conversation as we eat and drink, is home to me. We don’t do a ton of toasting around here, but I think everyone knows tonight is different. When it seems like most everyone is done eating and the kids are scattered and playing in the house or in the backyard, Andrew clinks his glass – as if we’re at a wedding. He stands up, “We all know tonight is special. We’re celebrating Sadie and the bambino of course. There’s no other way we’d want to head into our weekend than to be here with you all. Especially because we,” he says pointing back and forth between the two of us, “-we have some exciting news to share, too. We are grateful for each of you and all of the support you’ve given us over the years. It wasn’t easy – some of you were around when it was just me and the boys and we -”

“Spit it out, Drew,” Bo says.

“Yeah, man. Get on with it,” Hayden says. I know they are not expecting what we are about to say, so I stand up and stand next to Andrew, taking his hand.

“Wait. This is really big, isn’t it?” Katie asks. “What’s going on guys?”

“When Lace and I met, she took on a lot. She worked her ass off at work, she raised my boys, and she sacrificed months and months of the year as a family. I was never here. I’m never here – between practice, watching film, and the season. She’s done it all.” I smile at him. He’s the sweetest man I know. “She gave up a lot of herself, you know?” He’s getting emotional. His voice cracks a little as tears rise in his eyes. I’ve never seen him quite like this, except on our wedding day. I look up at our friends and there’s a mix of emotions etched on their faces. I smile and squeeze his hand. “So anyway, she’s given up a lot. And I kept asking more of her. I fill up the house with these huge kids that smell and eat all of our food. She gets up the next day and is like – what’s next? But there’s been one thing that has escaped us. I blame myself and all of the effort she’s put into everyone else’s lives and dreams, mine included.”

“Oh my god,” Ali says. “I have chills. Come on, bro. Tell us. Is this what I think it is?”

I shake my head yes. “What? No way!” Katie says, pushing back her chair and hugging us both. We’re all crying now – before the words have even escaped our lips.

When we pull away, I know everyone has already figured it out. I take over for my husband. “I’m pregnant! We passed up the first trimester about a week ago. It’s a girl. We’re having a baby girl!” Everyone is up and out of their chairs congratulating us. I’m crying. Andrew is crying. I’m so grateful they’re so happy for us. “We didn’t mean to steal your thunder, Kate. We were going to tell you all last weekend but better things happened last weekend than our news,” I say to Katie. I’ve not wanted to take away from the absolute joy we all still feel that Sadie is home. But I wanted desperately to tell them.

“Are you kidding me, you lunatic? There’s no stealing thunder here. This is incredible,” she says. The conversation continues – once everyone has shaken hands or hugged – as we settle back into our chairs.

Under the table, Andrew takes my hand, as Katie and I talk about all things baby. We tried for a few years when we first got married. And in those few years, I had six miscarriages. I gave up then. I threw myself into work, our boys, and Andrew’s students and players. There are football coaches. And then there are football coaches. My husband is the latter. Our lives are consumed by the school and frankly, the town who thinks we’re public property. That’s the life of a coach in a small town that lives for the Friday night lights. Our lives revolve completely around these young men he parents and coaches. I am there for practices with the other wives. We cook for the boys on the weekends. We take food to Drew when he’s sitting in his office for hours on end. Somewhere in there I just stopped hoping. I met Drew when the boys were deep in grief over losing their mom. They clung to me in a way I didn’t expect. I figured when we started dating that they’d maybe struggle to accept me. They didn’t. I was consumed by raising them. I love them as if they are mine. I’m not a stepmom and haven’t been since nearly the beginning. They’re our boys. But always, always – hidden underneath our busy lives and this dream that I wouldn’t trade for anything – is this longing that stayed just out of my reach. A few weeks after I turned 42, long after I’d given up all hope, my doctor came into the exam room with a huge smile on her face. I thought I was starting menopause. Or maybe I was sick. I’d been run down – feeling awful for weeks and weeks. I was losing weight and couldn’t stay awake half the time.

“What’s up the with smile?” I asked her.

“Well . . . you’re pregnant, Lacey.” And then I didn’t hear her for a full minute or so. I still have no idea what she said. I didn’t realize she was talking until she started laughing at me.

After ten years of infertility, losing six babies, and burying this dream, I’m having a baby with the man who made me a mom to his wild brood of boys. When I dreamed about days like this, in that closet in my parent’s old clapboard house in Pamlico County, it didn’t look quite like this. But I didn’t know it would feel this good, either.

Football . . . It’s Not Just a Game


football,  Football, High School Football, Friday Night Lights

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Football season is upon us!

I’ve had a longstanding love affair with the game of football. You can blame my dad and nearly all the males and most of the females, on that side of my family. But . . . my dad is a high school football coach which means it’s kind of in my blood.

Growing up, my dad coached high school and college football {and now coaches high school again}. We were a football watching family – on my dad’s side. UCLA on Saturday’s, the Rams for professional football, and Friday nights during the high school season were all dedicated to the game.

But being a coach’s kid is more than just the season itself. It’s a year-round deal, though things kick up in the summer. When we were young, my grandparents lived within walking distance to Anaheim High School, where my dad coached. We would walk down from their house if he was already there. Occasionally, my Grandpa fed the players.

One time, he made a huge amount of his ridiculously spicy burritos. Everyone who was in the house that day wrapped burritos – for the whole team. We received our instructions on wrapping properly and went to it. No wonder I love feeding my Marines. 😉

During summer practices, my brother and I often occupied ourselves while the players worked out in the gym, while my dad watched tape in the office, or during practice itself. I remember my brother hiding in the coach’s office. I can still see flashes of memory – us crawling around and {probably being annoying} while my dad watched tape.

When my dad would take a break {probably because we whined so much} we would play “tennis” on the tennis courts or swim in the pool {which has sadly been closed since 2007}. Matt & I wandered all over that school. We played, fought, and made up games. And at least for me, I fell in love with football and Anaheim High School, in particular.

The team worked out under these bleachers!

Matt and I would eat super nutritious snacks {I’m sure my mom was thrilled with all the junk food we ate on those visits.} in the gym – Corn Nuts and Coke. I’m convinced I was prepared for working around a few hundred Marines from those early days in that loud, smelly gym, with . . . interesting language. These are among my fondest memories from childhood.

Anaheim High School was not only where my parents {and aunts & uncles} attended high school, but it’s also an old school {established in 1898} with a lot of pride. Our home games were played at Glover Stadium in Anaheim.


Those Friday nights, under the bright lights, will stay with me forever. We had some good Friday nights. And we had some not so good nights. When we won, I was elated and couldn’t sleep afterwards {good thing my Grandma let me stay up and watch TV with her}.

If we lost, there was no doubt about it . . . I was mad! During the playoffs one year, as the rain poured down on us {that never happened} and the Set Free bikers {don’t Google them…haha} prayed that our guys would pull out a win {literally on the microphone praying}, we lost. And it SUCKED. I’ll never forget that feeling. I was devastated – as if I’d played myself.

Anaheim High School, Alma Mater, Colonist Spirit

Football is not just a game. It’s a culture, it’s my childhood, it’s the cooling air of a SoCal fall, with Santa Ana winds sometimes blowing, the band playing, my Grandpa heckling the referees, the familiar voice of the announcers, and singing the Alma Mater at the end of the game. Football was as much a part of my life as anything else.

As an adult, football has changed a bit for me. I don’t find myself in the stands on Friday nights. But if you mess with my Panthers, I’ll take you out {Do not tempt me. Haha.}. But one thing that remains is the love for a game that is tied to nearly every good memory of those years with my dad.

football, Anaheim High School, For the Bell

Last year was a terrible season for the Panthers. So as the hangover from the crappy season wore off, it became clear that my team was getting back a little of the joy and fun they have playing this game. When they’re at their peak {team spirit wise} they remind me of all of the best things about football.

As the season has grown closer, I’ve gotten more and more excited. And bonus . . . I think my team has their heart back. This year feels like it could be a good one. 🙂 But even if it’s not, I’m still ridiculously excited.

Every year at this time, I start reminiscing about those early years of growing up with a coaching dad. And sometimes, when I’m standing in a room full of young Marines and I wonder how I’m not shocked by something they say or do {haha} it’s probably because I received enough training when I was eight, surrounded by a bunch of big dudes acting like it was no thing at all. 😉

This surely isn’t the best post I’ve ever written. There’s more I’d like to say – so much more. But I’ll leave it at this . . . my childhood would be drastically different without this game. It is one of my favorite parts of my elementary – junior high years.

I wouldn’t be the same person without football. Without football, I wouldn’t be me.