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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.