Close Knit

How local families strengthen the ties that bind

“In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds closer together, and the music that brings harmony.”

—Eva Burrows, Australian community welfare organizer, Officer of the Salvation Army from 1951 to 1993

Statistics reveal that half of first marriages end in divorce, while second and third marriages fare even worse. Families that are not only together but happily so are becoming more and more rare. Is there a secret to those “joyfully intact” families?

Apparently, there is.

Love. Commitment. Those two words sound almost cliché. But in a world where both are often missing or maligned, to find them together and thriving in a family setting is to discover a treasure. A visit with three Marion County families reveals what makes their families close and shares how they’ve built a foundation of love and commitment over the years. We even scored some favorite recipes!

Meet the Ergles

On a brisk winter evening, Noah and Joe Ergle are busy building a fire in the fireplace. The scent of wood smoke and crackling flames makes for a welcoming atmosphere, but the real warmth in the great room comes not from the fire but from the laughter and camaraderie of the family gathered to eat at the long table.

When Monty and Robbie Ergle married in 1990, they knew they wanted several children, but most importantly, they wanted a close-knit family. Spend an evening with the couple and their brood—Sam, 19; Grace, 17; Noah, 13; and Joe, 11—and it’s easy to see they’ve certainly got the “close” part right.

“Families love each other, but you have to find things you like about each other,” says Robbie. “We just try to enjoy each other and savor each day. It helps to have had good role models from our own families; even now we ask them for advice.” Robbie shares that her parents are in McIntosh and Monty’s parents live in Ocala and that both couples have been married for over 50 years.

“The kids always want to call their grandparents and invite them to whatever we’re doing,” says Monty, a portfolio manager at Community Bank in Ocala.

“They come to all our birthdays, games, plays and ceremonies,” says Noah, who’s in seventh grade at Blessed Trinity. “Going to Meme’s house every week is my favorite tradition; we get to see all our family and eat lots of good food.”

“We are a very food-oriented family,” laughs Robbie, a professor who teaches at the University of Central Florida’s College of Education satellite program at the College of Central Florida here in town. “When Monty was growing up, he always went to his grandparents for Sunday lunch after church. Now we all go to his parents’ (Gerald and Venice Ann Ergle) home for the evening meal. There are usually 15 or 16 of us, and each week the kids take turns requesting their favorite meals. It’s a life-long tradition.”

Whether it’s with Robbie’s family or Monty’s, sharing meals is a great opportunity to catch up with one another. They usually end up playing games—everything from football and basketball to hide-n-seek and Wii games. With cousins who also live in town, it’s like a party every week, even though it’s just family.

Holidays and birthdays are extra special; Christmas Eve is celebrated with Robbie’s parents (Celeste and Randy Brown), who live in McIntosh, a few blocks from the historic Presbyterian church her grandfather helped build. Four families with nine kids and two dogs (17 total) all spend the night together and wake up to share Christmas morning.

“My mom started this tradition when we got married, and I hope to do the same with my own children. It’s priceless,” says Robbie.

In this family, affection is expected and given freely. Saying “I love you” isn’t reserved for special occasions; it’s an everyday thing.

“We’re definitely a ‘hug’ family, and there’s always an open door. If there’s a problem, we talk about it with Mom and Dad,” says Grace, a junior at Trinity Catholic High School.

The Ergles make it a point to have lots of“common experiences” making “remember when” moments together. That might include fishing (buying a boat was one of the family’s best purchases, Robbie notes), working on a house project, helping the boys with their 4-H steers and hogs, playing with their dog, Lucky, or attending one of the kids’ sporting events. And there are definitely plenty of those. Sam played basketball throughout high school, Grace plays soccer, Noah plays basketball and football, while Joe plays football and lacrosse. Monty has coached many of the kids’ teams and considers that a privilege, not a duty.

All those practices can create havoc with a regular schedule, but the family still manages to eat together most nights.

“We may end up eating late or in shifts, but we make it a priority to eat together… and not with the TV on,” says Robbie. “Face time is important, so there’s no texting or phones at the table. The real world is more important than the virtual world.”

From ice cream sundaes and movies on New Year’s Eve to birthday celebrations where the “birthday person” creates the meal’s menu, to “pancake Fridays” when Monty cooks, to attending church every week, the family has built a foundation of cherished rituals that have made an impact on each person.

“The secret to our family is ‘family time,’ like Dad waking us up every morning, making us breakfast and driving us to school,” says Joe, a sixth-grader at Blessed Trinity, who is wise beyond his years.

“All of these traditions help to keep us close as a family. Our family wants to stay close and be connected,” adds Sam, a freshman at the University of Florida. “We are lucky because we love to be around each other and we have fun when we are all together.”

Mama’s Chocolate Pound Cake

Recipe courtesy of Robbie Ergle

1 ½cups butter, softened

3cups sugar

5eggs

3cups flour

½cup cocoa

1tsp baking soda

¼t salt

18-oz tub sour cream

1cup boiling water

2tsp vanilla

Cream butter; add sugar gradually beating well. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Sift flour, cocoa, salt and soda. Add to creamed mixture, alternating with sour cream and beginning and ending with flour mixture. Add boiling water, and mix. Stir in vanilla. Pour batter into greased and floured 10-inch tube pan. Bake at 325°F for 90 minutes. Check doneness. Cool in pan for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from pan, and cool completely before icing with glaze.

Chocolate Glaze

Blend the following ingredients:

6tbsp butter

2cups powdered sugar

6tbsp cocoa

4-5tbsp boiling water

Meet the Washingtons

Sometimes having a close family means striving for something you didn’t experience in your own childhood.

“Even though I knew my parents loved me, I didn’t always hear it. You can say you love someone but not always show it or speak it. I wanted to make sure my kids heard that. I also wanted them to have relationships with their siblings where they tell each other they love them,” says Roxana Washington.

“Going in, we knew we wanted to be a family that communicates and has an open relationship where our kids could trust us and always count on us,” adds Lorenzo Washington.

Born and raised in Ocala, Lorenzo and Roxana knew each other long before they married. (“He was my brother’s friend,” smiles Roxana.) They are the parents of Lorenzo, Jr., 20; D’Andre, 18; and Shambria, 16.

“When the kids were younger, we made a point of not only having nightly bedtime stories but also sharing Bible stories and having prayer time together,” says Lorenzo. “One of the things we did early on was to make sure we always ate dinner together. That gets harder when they’re teenagers and everyone has different schedules, but you really have to value that and set aside time for the family.”

Over the years, the Washingtons built weekly rituals of attending church and eating dinner together.

“Eating together as a family every day is my favorite tradition,” says Lorenzo, Jr., now a sophomore at Valdosta State University, where he’s studying broadcast communications.

“We make the table a ‘no-texting’ zone,” notes Lorenzo. “Even when the boys bring friends home from college, we all sit down together to eat and talk about how the day went.”

That habit of making the kids’ friends feel welcome began long ago. From the time their children were young, the Washingtons wanted their home to be a place their kids’ friends wanted to come.

“We like to make our home a safety zone and a place to hang out,” says Roxana.

“We’ve found a lot of their friends’ parents aren’t together, so the kids find it easy to be with us and bond with us. Plus, Roxana can cook really well,” Lorenzo adds with a grin.

Just being together might sound simple, but all three Washington kids rank their family’s ability to communicate well as the main thing that has made and kept them close.

“I believe that a family that worships, prays and communicates with each other stays close,” says Shambria, a junior at Trinity Catholic High School.

“I can talk to my parents about anything,” adds D’Andre, who also attends Valdosta State, where he is a freshman studying psychology.

Sports have always assumed a large role in the family, with both boys playing football. D’Andre also played lacrosse, and Shambria plays basketball. All those practices and games made for some hectic schedules, but as their dad points out, that’s part of being a family.

“Our kids have all been very active in sports, and we made sure we supported each of them whatever season it was. Our goal was to make sure the whole family was in the stands to cheer them on,” says Lorenzo, adding that the kids realized this sometimes meant sacrificing their time to support their siblings. D’Andre admits this family time at sporting events is probably his favorite tradition.

Both boys played Little League with city teams when younger, and Lorenzo also coached in the Pop Warner league for nine years while they were playing.

Roxana laughs remembering those years.

“The boys tell this story over and over. Their dad always told them to have their shoes and pads on and be ready to go out the door for practice in five minutes from when he’d get home from work. The rules were that any player who was late to practice had to run laps. Sometimes they were late because their dad was late getting home. They didn’t like to have to run, but he said the rules applied to them even though he was the coach!”

At least once a month, the Washingtons get together with their extended family in Ocala. There are usually 25 to 30 in attendance, and the kids are especially “tight” with their uncles and cousins. (Although Roxana’s parents are deceased, Lorenzo’s mom stays involved and tries not to miss any activities.) Monopoly is often the game of choice on these occasions.

“If we don’t play Monopoly, we may spend a day at the park and play softball, volleyball or kick ball, something where we can all play together,” says Lorenzo.

Even though smartphones are a no-no at the dinner table, the Washingtons use technology to stay close, especially now that both boys are away at college.

“The boys call me every day,” says Roxana, “and with the iPhones, we do FaceTime.”

Meet the Delks

Ocala-born and –raised, Lannis and Judy Delk met in their teens and married in 1971, but they have a connection that goes back to earliest childhood, as both were delivered by the same family doctor, Henry Harrell, Sr.

“We married young; I was 17, and he was 18, but we had some very deep conversations about family before we married. We wanted our marriage to be permanent and to make sure our children didn’t go through divorce,” says Judy. “Lannis’ mama died when he was young; my parents separated when I was 10 and divorced when I was 21. There were a lot of hurts that came up through the years after I was grown that I had to deal with, and I didn’t want that for my kids. Children can cope with divorce but not without a price.”

The Delks raised their children, Lorrie and Logan, on a small farm in rural Marion County. It was only 6 acres, but there was always a garden and room for the kids to raise steers, hogs and rabbits for their 4-H and FFA projects (“There has to be family support for a child to be successful in this,” notes Judy.)

From the time the kids were young, the family went fishing and to the hunting camp together. Both parents were determined to give them as much love and attention as possible but also to teach them practical life skills. Lorrie and Logan learned how to wash their own clothes, do simple mending chores, change a tire and change the oil in the car. Judy made sure they learned to cook, helping at her side as she canned and put up jelly.

Lannis worked for the phone company for many years. When he came home from work, it became habit for Judy and the kids to meet him in the yard to talk and unwind before dinner.

“We solved a lot of the world’s problems sitting on the tailgate of his truck,” she says.

Family photos and Lorrie’s artwork are found throughout the Delk’s family home. A massive fireplace constructed of field rock from Levy and Marion Counties anchors the living room.

“We’ve had lots of good times around that fireplace,” recalls Judy. “Even when the ‘Storm of the Century’ went through and took out the power, we were fine. We had a nice, warm fire and roasted weenies in the fireplace on palmetto sticks.”

Lannis and Judy didn’t always follow their own childhood memories when creating traditions for their own family. For example, as a boy, Lannis dreaded leaving home on Christmas morning to go visit relatives all day. When he and Judy had their own children, they made the decision to stay home.

“We invited the relatives to our house, but we didn’t want to wear the kids out taking them all over creation,” Judy says.

Birthdays were always celebrated with the grandparents. Because there are numerous August birthdays in the family, Lannis and Judy host an annual cookout, a big “birthday blow-out” where family, cousins and friends gather. Judy even put together a family cookbook, cleverly titled, Cooking with Nuts and Other Family Members.

“So many of my friends were from divorced homes, so it was great having an intact family. There was always a lot of humor and picking on each other in a playful, fun way. To this day, when you get my dad, brother and I in the same room together, there’s a lot of joking and cutting up,” says Lorrie Delk Walker, 41, who is married with two grown stepsons and lives in Lakeland, where she has her own public relations business.

“My mom was always good about demonstrating what it means to be grateful and appreciative. I think teaching empathy and appreciation raises good kids,” she says, adding that some of her and her brother’s favorite memories were of spending time every summer at their grandparents’ farm in the Panhandle town of Cottondale. “My granddaddy was a peanut farmer, and I’d ride in the combine with him. My grandmother was a real green thumb, and we’d start cuttings together. There were several summers I came home with plants and a kitten!”

Lorrie and Logan spent hours tearing up and down their driveway and dirt road in the two-seater go-kart (the salesman said it was “maintenance-free,” which was far from the truth). Logan loved drag racing, and as early as age 8, he was helping his dad do mechanical work on the cars. When he was in high school, he had his own drag racing car. Now 37, married and a father of three, Logan lives in Belleview and works as a lineman with SECO.

Lannis and Judy have a treasure trove of memories of their family over the years, but the best part is how close they remain today. Judy sums it up perfectly: “We love our kids dearly, but we also like them as people.”

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Recipe courtesy of Judy Delk

Cook 1 ½ cups elbow macaroni (or shells) in boiling, salted water until tender; drain. In saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons butter or margarine. Blend in 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, ½ teaspoon salt and a dash of pepper. Add 2 cups milk. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly. Add ¼ cup finely chopped onions (optional) and 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, cubed. Cook and stir until cheese is melted. Mix cheese sauce with cooked macaroni. Turn into 1 ½ quart casserole dish, and bake at 350°F for 35 to 40 minutes.

(Note from Judy: When Lannis and I first married, I made this for him. Looked beautiful, tasted wonderful, I thought. He took a bite and said it wasn’t macaroni and cheese. I assured him it was. He said it wasn’t like what they made for themselves from the box. It took a while before I got over my mad spell and made it again, but the kids—and now the grandchildren—love it. Logan makes it all the time for his kids and to take to events. Boxed mac and cheese, my eye!)

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