Thursday, August 20, 2009
Cousins: THESE Are My People
Next month I’ll be reading an essay on a panel at the Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. The essay, which was published online a while back at “Muscadine Lines,” is called, “Are These My People?” Much of my writing—personal and professional—circles around this theme, this search for my tribe, for somewhere to belong. My second blog post, over two years ago, carried this title. And since the first time I heard it, I loved Rodney Atkins’ song, “These Are My People.” (Also love that he’s from Tennessee and was born in 1969, the year I graduated from high school. He was also adopted, and is the spokesperson for the National Council for Adoption.)
All that to set up two stories I’m about to share—both about surprise encounters with cousins this week. Well, the first one wasn’t just this week. A few weeks ago I started getting messages on Facebook from one of my five first cousins, Julie Johnson, who lives in San Antonio. Julie’s father and my father were brothers, but she’s a lot younger than me because she’s Uncle Jim’s daughter from his second marriage. Julie didn’t meet her half brothers, Johnny and Jimmy, until 1977, because of some messy family issues. I remember the day they met—I was there, at my Aunt Barbara Jo’s house where we always shared Thanksgiving Day. But this year we also gathered on Christmas. We had lots to celebrate, because Bill and I had just adopted our first child, Jonathan, just four months earlier. Lots of cousins getting to know each other.
This is Julie and me. I think we had met once before, but she was just now old enough to begin to understand what cousins are. I was always closer to the cousins I grew up with in Jackson, Mississippi, but lately it’s cousin Julie that’s making the effort to reconnect. Oh, we’ve shared Christmas cards with family pictures over the years, but regular communication just wasn’t happening. Until I got on Facebook a couple of months ago. I love looking at her photo albums, seeing her kids, and even her cowboy husband roping cows at the rodeo! With FB messages, I can ask about her mother, my dear Aunt Joy, with whom I correspond by longhand, and get an immediate reply. Julie and I both lost our dads to cancer, but she was only 14 when she nursed Uncle Jim and shared his suffering. It’s very healing to me to reconnect with Julie, and I hope to make a road trip to visit her family soon.
My second healing “cousin encounter” happened yesterday. My mother grew up as an only child in Meridian, Mississippi. Her first cousin, Sonny Hopper, was also an only child, and they lived near each other and were more like brother and sister than cousins. Sonny is a retired Presbyterian minister in Lexington, Kentucky. A few years ago I took Mom on a road trip to visit him, before the Alzheimer’s had begun to erase her memories.
Yesterday Sonny and his wife, Barbara, stopped in Jackson to visit Mom at her nursing home, and called me from the lobby to chat and also to let Mom talk with me on their cell phone. I asked Sonny, “Does Mom know who you are?”
“Oh, she says we look familiar,” Sonny answered. “And she looks great—seems to be happy here, and that’s what matters.” Sonny is a good man.
After chatting with Barbara, she asked if I’d like to speak to Mom. Mother has forgotten how to use a telephone, so she doesn’t have one in her room any more. Barbara held the phone up to Mom’s ear and we chatted.
“Hi, Mom! It’s Susan.”
“Oh, hello dear. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Mom. Are you enjoying your visit with Sonny and Barbara?”
“Your cousin, Sonny Hopper, and his wife, Barbara, from Meridian.”
“Oh, I love the sound of those names.”
I can see Mom fingering the air as she speaks, as though she’s trying to capture the words and put them with the faces.
“Yes, remember that Sonny was Aunt Bess’s son, and you grew up with him in Meridian?”
“Oh, isn’t that nice. Yes, that sounds good.”
A few minutes later I was back on the phone with Sonny, thanking him for their visit and making sure I had all his contact information. After we hung up, I realized that he’s the only living person who knew my mother since she was a baby. Oh how I long to visit with him again and ask lots of questions about her…. And her people. My people.(I’ve got pictures of our visit with Sonny in Lexington a while back, but they’re in the attic…. Some day they’ll be in photo albums. Some day.)
But today I’m just thankful for cousins on both side of the family, and how much more connected I feel because of Julie and Sonny.