Katricia Tucker pulls down a funeral program resting on the family Christmas tree.
It’s the Tuesday before the holiday, and the festooned tree dominates her small living room. She gazes at her mother’s face pictured on the pamphlet — a reminder of a woman who lived to keep her large family together until her death on Sept. 1.
"In loving memory of Kelcy Evan Jones," the program reads. Inside, her entire list of grandchildren is too long to fit in the obituary. There’s Moses, Christaisha, Jessica, Micah, Christopher, Christina, Kelcy, Maurice, Derrick, Draylon, Lakavriana, Kentricia, Key’ntarius, Kenyon and still more who fall under a "host of other grandchildren."
It was Jones’ dying wish to keep them all together, and Tucker has been doing her best to carry that out. The 14 kids named in the program currently live with Tucker in a three-bedroom mobile home in east Denton. Three of them are Tucker’s biological children, while the other 11 are her sister’s.
Tucker said she and her mother starting caring for those 11 when her sister started getting into trouble with the law in Brazos County. They were a team until her mother’s health problems took hold.
Now, through Tucker’s never-ending search for a bigger and better home, she takes refuge in the fact that they’re all together on Christmas.
"I’m going to rock with them until the wheels fall off," she said. "Because I love these kids and I see them as mine, and they don’t deserve what they’re going through. They don’t deserve this at all."
Tucker and her family grew up in the Bryan-College Station area. The 36-year-old had been helping her mother care for her sister’s kids since she was a teenager. They have several different fathers, she said. Most of the kids, whose ages range from 5 to 21, attend school in Denton. Two work part-time jobs, and three have been diagnosed with a disability, including a 5-year-old with cerebral palsy.
Tucker said she’s on her own right now, making her way with disability checks and adoption subsidies. It’s been a long and arduous journey to their home in Denton, where she’s lived for about three years.
Around 2008, as Jones continued to take on more of her grandchildren, she moved from Texas to Moorehead, Minnesota. There, she discovered better housing opportunities for her and the kids.
Tucker moved to the same area with her children and their father about six months later.
"I’m a momma’s girl, so she knew I was coming," Tucker said, adding that she made sure to move close by.
For about six years, Tucker lived there with her children and their father, making sure they were within arm’s reach of her mother and her sister’s children. But the cold started to bother her mother’s arthritis, Tucker said, and Jones moved in with family friends in Ardmore, Oklahoma, for about a year.
Tucker said her mother’s health issues landed her in a hospital in Oklahoma, where doctors noticed blood clots in her head. She eventually contracted pneumonia as her health continued to deteriorate. Several months later, around 2014, Tucker and Jones decided to rejoin other family members in the Bryan-College Station area with all 14 kids.
"I said, ‘If you’re going back, I’m going back with you,’" Tucker said. "Because I saw things changing with her body."
Tucker and her ailing mother took the kids to Texas, and Tucker immediately ran into financial issues when she arrived. She said the moving company had charged her double the required amount and took all the remaining money in her account.
"[The company] ripped me off and threatened to keep all of our stuff," she said. "Our whole life was on there [the truck]."
She and the kids ended up staying in a homeless shelter in Conroe for the night. But they continued on their course to rejoin family members near Houston, where they faced more trouble finding a home for all the children.
She heard Denton was a reasonable place to settle down with "good schools and not a lot of crime." Her mother found a place in the Ashli Oaks mobile home park on McKinney Street, where Tucker soon joined her. There, Tucker met her friend Keila Hernandez.
Hernandez recalled the moment she found out about all 14 kids.
"I asked her, ‘Did you say you had four kids?’ And she said, ‘No, one-four.’ … She was cooking for everybody that day. And she even invited me to dinner. And that broke my heart."
Hernandez occasionally gives some of the kids a ride to the dentist’s office in Lewisville where she works in the marketing department. She said their polite demeanor caught her by surprise.
"They share everything and they know how to take care of each other," Hernandez said. "I always ask [Tucker],’How do you do this? I only have two kids. Can you help me with two?’"
After Tucker moved into her current home at the Denton Falls mobile home park, which is directly adjacent to Ashli Oaks, she admitted her mother to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Jones’ health continued to declined until she died of congestive heart failure, among other complications, Tucker said.
Right now, Tucker said it’s nearly impossible for her to find another place to live. She’s currently paying rent month-to-month, and she knows she can’t do that forever.
"I will say no one could ever know how hard it is, you know, when you go apply for assistance, or when you go look for a house and you’re being asked, ‘How many kids do you have ?’ What do you say when you have this many?" she said.
Tucker said she doesn’t get much help from other family members. She has to rely on the older kids to help her pick up the slack.
For one of teenagers in the bunch, 17-year-old Jessica Tucker, being close to her siblings has been a way of life. At this point, she’s used to playing a motherly role for the younger kids.
"Sometimes, when [my mom] doesn’t feel like cooking, I cook. And I wake them up to go catch the bus and stuff," she said.
Jessica’s days are full with school and a part-time job at McDonald’s. She’s thinking about college— possibly the University of Texas at Austin. But if that doesn’t work out, she wants to stay near her siblings.
She said she doesn’t recall living away from them for an extended period of time.
"Sometimes you do want space, but I miss them after a while," she said.
Tucker has officially adopted 7-year-old Draylon. She’s still trying to grapple with the legal steps that go into adopting the other 10 kids.
Tucker said she fears having any of the children taken away. She’s just tired of hiding it from people. It was her mother’s dream, she said, to remain one unit. And while space is scarce, they know they have each other to lean on.
On Tuesday, as Tucker examined her mother’s funeral program, her eyes shifted to the Christmas tree, which represents much more for her bundled family.
"My mother had this tree for a very long time, and it just gives us a good feeling and a good memory," she said.
JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.