Sea Blue Lens


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What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Part II

IMG_3859On the Road: Christopher S. Bond Bridge, Kansas City, Missouri

After five days in Nebraska, my sister and I reluctantly bade farewell to our new-found family, climbed into our rental car, and headed back to Missouri to attend a second family reunion, this time with some of Dad’s paternal family. They hold a “cousins reunion” every year on the Fourth of July, and had welcomed us to come if ever we could. This was the year! July 4th was exactly a week after the Nebraska reunion, and the location less than four hours away by car. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

IMG_3526Kansas City Skyline

As we unpacked and began to relax in our hotel room, suddenly both our cell phones began making unfamiliar, urgent noises. Then sirens began going off outside. Seriously? A tornado warning? Uncertain about what to do, since neither Maine nor California is prone to tornadoes, we went downstairs and joined the small crowd in the lobby. A few people were clearly very frightened, but most seemed calm and many crowded around the front entrance to watch the weather. Within moments the power had gone out, the wind picked up, and sheets of rain were blowing first one way then the other across the parking lot.

IMG_3545-1Tornado Watch

A tornado (or two) actually did touch down in nearby Lee’s Summit, tearing off roofing and air conditioners at a shopping center, tipping over a semi and flattening a huge striped tent where fireworks were being sold near the high school. At the hotel, everyone went back to their rooms when the sirens stopped, the power came back on in an hour or so, and we were treated to a spectacular sunset display as the storm clouds broke up.

IMG_3558-2After the Storm

The next day we went to our cousin’s lakeside home. It’s just the kind of place I love — a smallish stone cottage that’s grown over the years — porches enclosed, deck added, and so on — with the original structure and details still visible. Its position on a hillside above the lake gives a bit of a treehouse feeling, along with a lovely water view. It’s compact, comfortable, and charming, and it accommodates a surprising number of people.

IMG_3584Bird’s Eye View

There I met three first cousins with whom I share a grandfather, along with their children and grandchildren, our cousins once and twice removed. Many others were cousins to each other through their mother’s family, so not related to my sister and me by blood, but they welcomed us anyway. Everyone was curious and wanted to hear our story — how we were connected and how we found each other.

I suppose most families have a “skeleton in the closet.” Our father’s skeleton, the one that haunted him all his life, was the fact that he was illegitimate. It was apparently not much of a secret that my grandmother Grace was already pregnant when she married. Her husband raised Dad as his own son, and Dad thought of him as his real father though he knew from an early age it wasn’t really so. Grace was not a happy woman and blamed Dad for her “Sad & sorry predicament.” This was no doubt one of the issues that caused him to run away in his early teens.

WeddingPortrait-Grace_babyLeft: Grace’s wedding portrait. Right: Grace and the baby who became my daddy

Grace, whose fiancé was away serving in the Army, went to work as housekeeper for a man whose wife had died leaving him with five young children. He was handsome, she was pretty. I suspect both of them were lonely, and the inevitable happened. No one knows the precise details of what followed, but when Grace’s sweetheart came home he chose to marry her knowing she was carrying another man’s child.

Obviously, an illegitimate child could be a fairly large skeleton in its biological father’s closet, also, especially if he were a man with a significant position in the community. After our Nebraska family found us, I dove into Ancestry.com myself. I followed clues in some notes Dad had left and was able to identify his father. The pieces fit together perfectly.

grandfathers-childrenGrandfather and his children, about the time Grace knew them

I connected with the family through Ancestry.com, and their own research verified mine. They have been gracious and accepting ever since learning of our existence, which did come as a surprise to them. The cousins we met on this memorable 4th of July are the children of the youngest boy in the photo above.

Our Independence Day gathering was climaxed by going out on our cousin’s pontoon boat to watch fireworks from the water.

IMG_3661Dockside Sunset

IMG_3679Fireworks Flotilla

IMG_3697Waiting for Darkness

FireworksCelebrating in Red, White, and Blue

It was the perfect ending to such a momentous day.

I grew up with no knowledge of my father’s family at all. Meeting and getting to know — in person! — literally dozens of extended family members has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. I hope that somehow Dad does know we’ve found his family, and how happy his family is that we did. They’re wonderful people, on both sides — warm, open-hearted, intelligent, talented, and funny. I wish we could have known them sooner, and oh, how I wish he could have known them. I believe he’d have loved them as much as we do.

We had one more day in Missouri before flying home, and two of our cousins took us to explore the city of Independence, where we toured a beautiful historic estate. That’s going to need its very own post.


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What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Part I

IMG_3170Adventure Awaits

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.

IMG_3215-2Green Fields and Big Sky

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.

DowntownDowntown Wahoo

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.

First Meeting: At the Wigwam Cafe

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!

IMG_3227Getting To Know You . . . .

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.

Four Generations l-r: My great-great-grandparents, grandmother Grace, my dad, and my great-grandmother

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:

IMG_3285Quiet, Tree-lined Neighborhoods

IMG_3365Country Roads

IMG_3361Wildflower-bordered Fields

IMG_3387Old Bridges

IMG_3334Old Barns

GreenwoodDepotMuseumGreenwood Depot Museum

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.

IMG_3433Public School

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.

IMG_3442 copyFarmers Co-op

We saw a lot of these. This one was up the street a couple of blocks from the old Public School.

cemeterycollagePaying Our Respects

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.

IMG_3258-2Sea of Corn

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.


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Man of Mystery

This week’s Be Still – 52 project is still-life family portraits . . . creating a photographic “portrait” of a person without the person! That sounds impossible, but I liked the idea and knew immediately that my subject would be my father.

This past June marked the twentieth anniversary of my father’s death. Twenty years! So hard to believe it’s been that long. Dad was a complicated man, and also a somewhat mysterious one. As a child, I knew nothing about his background except that he was from the Midwest. We had no extended family. I once overheard a snippet of adult conversation saying that his name, the name I knew him by, wasn’t his real one. But I was a shy child who didn’t ask questions, so I tucked it away in the back of my mind and mostly forgot about it. I sensed it was something I wasn’t supposed to know about, anyway.

My sister, who is ten years younger than I and much more direct and outgoing, challenged Dad in his later years to record his life story for her. She gave him a tape recorder and some tapes. After his passing, I found notes he’d jotted down about his early life, and one tape that he’d begun, expanding upon those notes.

And that was how we finally learned a bit about who our father was, by following clues in those notes and doing some detective work on Ancestry.com. It wasn’t a spy-novel-secret-identity sort of story after all, just a sad family drama that caused a young boy to run away from a troubled home at age 14, in the middle of the Great Depression. In the same way that we didn’t know where he came from, his family never knew where he went. He took the name of his biological father and changed his birth date to appear four years older than he actually was. It must have required all of his intelligence and ingenuity just to survive in those hard times.

How I wish we had known all this while he was still alive! Sometimes I wonder if he would be pleased that his secrets have been revealed. We are pleased, anyway. My sister and I have been able to connect with both sides of his family and have learned we have a plethora of cousins through both his maternal and paternal sides. We have so much more understanding and compassion for the more difficult aspects of his personality, now that we know something about his birth and early years.

DSC_6564_DadFragments

The still life I created in Dad’s memory is comprised of some of the few items I have that were his. Even they are mysterious! I have no idea of the source of the pewter box and the larger jade elephant, but remember them being around all my life. They were the only things I really wanted of Dad’s after he died. The “Birthdays ‘Round the Year” book was a gift to him from a woman (not my mother) on his birthday, two months before I was born. There’s an inscription with her signature, “Jhana,” inside the cover. The poetry clippings were inside, dated in his handwriting. The book is filled with dates of births, deaths, weddings, and divorces in various handwritings. Dad’s own death is recorded there in my own hand.

Those are his World War II draft registration and ID cards, with that incorrect birth date. The cuff links remind me of the white dress shirts he wore as a bartender, leaving for work each night as we children were getting ready for bed. I found the handful of tarnished old coins, mostly foreign, in the bottom of an old cigar box. Dad loved unusual coins, and always checked through his tips carefully for anything of interest. One of these is a United States seated liberty quarter dated 1842, worn so smooth that it’s barely readable.

This is such a tiny part of who he was, and what he was. It says nothing of his warmth, his beautiful singing and speaking voice, his sense of humor, his love of books, his talent as a gardener that he turned into a second career after he retired from bartending. It also says nothing of his demons, his alcoholism, his delight in shocking and aggravating his neighbors, his ability to build up and tear down with his words. As I said, a complicated man. I loved him and sometimes I hated him. But he was my father, and in the end, it’s the love that remains. I miss him very, very much.

Image processed with Kim Klassen’s textures bestill and appreciate.