Weaving ancestral threads

A few weeks ago I went back to Potomac Maryland to pay my respects to my uncle Bob Cook who had passed away this summer. It was my first visit to his home, a visit I’d longed to make years before. While helping Alexandra sort through her father’s papers, I found a card I’d written dated Feb 5, 2002 (Bob had scrawled the date at the top) extending my hand and heart and asking forgiveness for never writing.  It hadn’t been from lack of desire. I never heard back from them and perhaps wrongly assumed that they weren’t interested in contact.

The Cook family had always been shrouded in mystery. My mom’s story about them centered on the great fire that took the life of one of their daughters and had essentially driven Eleanor, my mom’s sister, mad and depressed for most of her ensuing years. I’d gotten the impression that Eleanor had retreated into a shell and was completely cut off from the outside world, including her siblings.  The fact that she hadn’t been invited to the one and only reunion of the Sullivan clan in Big Bear 2001 only affirmed this suspicion.  But upon close inspection of the saved notes, letters, and cards that were piled in boxes, I came to learn that she was well loved by her siblings and reached out more than I’d known. I learned later that Eleanor and Bob had insisted on coming to Philadelphia for my mom’s admission into the National Honor Society at University of Pennsylvania, which so moved my mom as her parents chose not to come, probably due to age.

I found photos of happy times for Eleanor, Bob, Alexandra, and the airedale terriors they had loved. It was clear that she had been blessed by a dedicated and devoted husband who shielded her from the world and did his best to help her heart heal from the tragedy.  I’m sure he was also stricken from the loss of Elva (named after his beloved mother), but he put on a brave face and soldiered on as people often do in the face of tragedy. And from 2001 to 2004, he insisted on single-handedly caring for Eleanor during her dementia-riddled slide into death.  I found loving letters from Rita, her angelic sister in Los Angeles, who had been plagued by severe scoliosis throughout her life (my grandmother would call her “Right to Left Rita”) and vulvadenia in her later years.  In one of Rita’s last letters she shared her struggles after falling and breaking her hip, and her admission that life had become too hard and that at 85 she was waiting to die. It was clear in that card that the Cooks had called often and were very supportive of Rita.  I also saw photos of her brother Alex who had apparently visited them often when making trips to DC, including one of him shirtless and hatted at a typewriter, perhaps a nod to Gonzo journalism.  Her sister Eugenia had lived in DC while working under the secretary of health in the Johnson administration, and often took Alexandra for visits to the myriad federal buildings and parks. And her oldest sister Mary, another angelic presence in the family, had appeared in several photos, including one of her as a bathing beauty and later on a visit to the Cooks.

I knew Bob Cook to be a wonderful human being even before our one and only meeting when he and his daughter Alexandra visited California in 2010.  Sitting in his office in Potomac, I gazed at photos belying his sense of humor and stable good nature, his twinkling eyes and kindly face calling my attention.  Alex read aloud a few of the daily letters he’d written to his mother while in the army.  I envied her relationship with Bob, a stable, kind, and devoted father, not the jekyl and hyde character I’d grown up with.  Bob had shared so much of his family’s history with her, taking her as a young girl to do genealogical research at the august centers of learning in DC.

I’ve spent my life hungering for contact with both sides of my family.  As an only child whose parents were swept up in the daily struggles of survival (whose parents rarely shared childhood memories or family stories, I hungered to find a place where I belonged.  The wound deepened when my parents divorced.  I was 11 years old.  Suddenly I was no longer part of my father’s family, the only family I’d been close with. My dad no longer invited me to family functions, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins didn’t reach out to me.  I finally broke the stalemate 25 years later, and wished that I’d had the courage to reach out sooner.  But the possibility of rejection wasn’t worth the risk.  I was afraid that they’d think me slovely and ugly, as I’d gained weight in college and felt ugly and inadequate.  My memory of them was that of judgment, and I felt that I wouldn’t be seen as measuring up.

My mom had moved across country after college in part to distance herself from her family, though a sister and brother had relocated to southern California. As the youngest (ironically, so was my father), she perceived her sisters as malevolent forces bent on making her feel stupid and sticking her with the old maid card.  She wanted to prove that she could do things on her own and wasn’t helpless.

I think physical distance made it difficult to get to know the Sullivan clan.  I got the chance to spend time with Aunt Rita in Los Angeles and Aunt Eugenia in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  I liked Aunt Mary but only met her a few times.  Pauline was a hoot and I managed to visit her a few times before she passed.  Uncle Alex was hard to access and withdrawn, but I managed to pry him open a few times and learned some amazing things about his childhood. As for Aunt Eleanor, I wasn’t sure she knew who I was, nor was interested.

As I reread the card I’d sent to she and Bob in February 2002, I was struck by the words “I’m sorry this is the first time I have written.  If I had known you lived in Maryland when I visited your sister Pauline last summer I would have happily visited”. Finding that card was a ray of hope for me.  It had mattered enough to them to save it.

As I sat reflecting on my new-found and perhaps more complex understanding of the lives of these people I barely knew, I wondered. Perhaps I am an archaeologist, sifting through pottery shards to make sense of a people I’d never known but had hungrily wished to.  Maybe that is enough.  I have long blamed myself for not knowing my family’s actors and their stories. Perhaps it is enough to look at their photos, read their letters, to get to know them from these shards.  To find a few threads, and with these, to weave an ancestral tapestry – of which I am a part.


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