This is one of my favorite pictures of my mother. It captures something about her that is hard to capture in a photograph. I would say the best word for it is “ruggedness.” When the picture was taken we were pulling away from the cemetary where her cousin had just been buried. You can see the grief written all over her face. My mother was no stranger to grief. Usually she did not dwell on it. But as with most mothers and daughters there was a tie between us that made me aware of feelings she did not make known to others.
Take, for example, the relationship she had with this cousin. When my mother was a small girl, the cousin was lost to her family. She was her mother’s brother’s child. When her widowed uncle remarried and then died himself, his widow took the children away from the family and moved “out East”, as it turned out, to Maryland.
Mother’s family had migrated to Oklahoma from Eastern Kentucky: two sets of sisters and brothers, who had married one another, along with another brother and his wife went there in the early 1900’s. So my mother’s family of nine children, her double cousins of ten or more children, and these two lost cousins and their older siblings had all grown up a small distance from one another on the Oklahoma plains.
They went to church and school with one another. They worked in the barnyards, fields and raised gardens together. They often spent Sundays together and my grandmother Smith usually put together a large Sunday dinner and invited in the relatives and friends, including the local minister, for the meal. The cousins were deeply attached, their lives and stories intermingled.
So when her cousins were “taken” the remaining families had angrily gone to court to try to get the children back, but it was to no avail. Cousins Allie and Pearl were gone and my mother continued through all my young years to grieve this loss from her own childhood. She would recall events at the time they were taken and occasionally repeat some brief stories about how her parents had finally gone to see them and had even seen the nation’s capitol when they visited.
After I moved to Maryland and was in my forties, my mother began to ask me if I thought we could find Allie and Pearl. She sent me an old address that she had obtained from members of her family in Oklahoma and I carefully kept it in my address book, but never acted on it, just noticing that the location was several hours away. She lived in Ohio then and I was very shy about the whole matter so I put it off, thinking to myself that these long-lost cousins surely wouldn’t be all that interested anyway.
Later on, my mother moved to Maryland to live with us. After we had settled in and even more time had passed, she renewed her campaign, and I finally arranged to contact her cousin through one of the phone numbers she had from a sister of Pearl’s back in Oklahoma. We spoke with Allie’s daughter, Roberta, and learned that Allie had passed just a few years before but that Pearl now lived in a nursing facility and they kept in close touch with her and her family. Next thing we knew she invited us to their family Christmas gathering and–as I expected–my mother could hardly wait to see them….
As for me, I was still more than a little shy and wondered how these people might feel having us strangers show up at their holiday event.
Now I am sure, as anyone who is reading this post has already figured out, what happened was not at all what I expected.
That Christmas, after seventy-some long years, my mother finally had her reunion with her cousin Pearl! Mother and Pearl conversed well even though Pearl had some memory problems that made it challenging. Mother’s elephant-like memory delighted Roberta who is quite a family historian and has had a long time interest in learning more about of her father’s life and family back in Oklahoma. Mother was able to share many anecdotes from the years on the homeplace. And as the evening progressed, Roberta took us down to the basement to look at pictures and even set up a slide show to let us see the recorded events from her own growing up years: pictures of their farm, their 4-H adventures, their lives on the Eastern Shore. By the time we finally headed back home, my mother was happy as a clam and was going again over all the events of the evening!
In addition to the homecoming reunion, what I found most amazing about the evening was the appearance of my cousins: how much they looked like my mother’s family, now my own. Even the subtle gestures were the same. Instead of being uncomfortable and estranged, I found just the opposite: a sense of kinship and belonging and I could feel my own attachment feelings beginning to grow.
I am glad that I finally heeded my mother’s request. I am just sorry that it took so long for me to listen.
My cousin Roberta and her daughter Kim at Pearl’s funeral.