You may remember the post called Man of Mystery that I published last September for Be Still – 52; the assignment was to create a “family portrait” in still life. The subject I chose was my father, and I shared a bit of his story, how he had run away from home at age 14 or 15, during the Great Depression, cutting all ties with his past. This summer, 21 years after his death, I connected with that past in person for the very first time.
My sister flew from California and I from Maine to Kansas City, Missouri, and from there we drove northwest to Wahoo, Nebraska, to attend the first of two different family reunions being held one week and 250 miles apart.
Dad grew up in a series of small towns around Lincoln, Nebraska, and many family members still live in the area. Our first reunion (or “union,” as my sister joked, since it would be our first time to meet them) was with this family, descendents of our grandmother Grace — who, of course, we never knew.
It was an emotional time for all of us, as our cousins told us of how their parents, Dad’s sister and brother, never stopped looking for him. They would check phone directories when they traveled, and knock on strangers’ doors if they saw a mailbox with the same name on it, always hoping to find their missing brother. They had no way of knowing that Dad was no longer using the name they knew him by. And Dad never even knew he had a brother, born after he left home. It pleases us all to picture the three of them together now, maybe drinking a beer, talking and laughing about how they helped us all find each other.
It was Pat, a genealogist friend of our cousin Mike, who heard the story from him and took on the challenge of trying to find his “missing uncle.” She connected the dots through Ancestry.com and determined that our father Charles might be Mike’s long-lost Uncle Carl. Some email exchanges and Q&A’s followed, and the link was confirmed. We met Pat on this trip, too, and though she’s not related by blood, she is definitely part of our family now!
One of the most exciting things for us has been seeing photographs of our father as a child for the first time ever. A young cousin recently discovered two photo albums belonging to Grandma Gracie and brought them to the reunion. It seems almost miraculous that they exist, since all the old family pictures were thought to have been destroyed years ago in a house fire. In fact, some of the photographs are charred along the edges.
Following the reunion, we were able to spend more time with some of our new family. Pie and coffee, lots of conversation, and more photos were shared around the table. It was amazing how comfortable we all felt right from the start. There was a connection that felt very natural, not at all like meeting strangers for the first time.
On the last day, one of our cousins and our aunt drove us around the area. It was fascinating to see where our father had spent his boyhood. The Midwest is a part of the country that was new to my sister and me, and we thought it very beautiful. My sister, who lives in a desert-like part of drought-stricken California, was in awe of the lush greenery and abundant growth everywhere. We saw:
We visited the small town of Greenwood, where Dad lived for a while as a boy. The first thing we saw was this tiny museum, but sadly it was closed that day.
Across the street from the museum is this disused old school with a For Sale sign next to the cracked walkway. Dad might actually have attended this school.
We saw a lot of these. This one was up the street a couple of blocks from the old Public School.
We visited several cemeteries to see and photograph the graves of family members who are no longer with us, though not all of these photos are of our own family’s resting places. I have always found cemeteries to be peaceful, pleasant places to visit, and I am often touched by the ways people memorialize their loved ones.
I’ll close this chapter with an image that’s typical of so many views we saw from the roads and highways in Nebraska. I really don’t have words to express how it feels to have this connection to my father’s family, something my sister and I never imagined would happen. It is amazing to have this rich heritage of people and place. I’m so grateful to Pat for finding us and to the family for embracing us. I want to come back, to have more time, to be able to walk and explore more deeply.
Stay tuned, as my sister and I pack our bags and hit the road to our next destination and family reunion #2.