A Family Story
In November, CBC’s Canada Writes held a contest entitled Blood Lines. Contestants were to dig through the pages of their family’s past and share a compelling story from their bloodline. We were to include a picture with our submissions. I don’t normally enter contests, but felt that the story of how we found our American cousins was an important one to tell. It’s a story we still mull over when we get together. The ‘what-if’s seem deeply entrenched for each of us even as we are thankful for the ‘what–is’. The story has all the elements of good fiction—heroes, villains, a journey, and a reconciliation−except it’s true.
The picture is of the Portara, Greek for door. It sits on the island of Naxos in Greece, where our grandmother was born. It’s interesting that there is no actual door. It is really just an opening. This picture reminds me of my grandmother and my cousins and my family, how open we were to each other despite the circumstances you will read about in our story. I’d like to thank my cousins for giving me permission to use our family history both for the contest and in this blog. Here’s our story.
“I wish we found you sooner,” my cousin says every time we visit. “Maybe your parents could have been our mom and dad too.”
“I know,” I say choking on tears so they don’t flow to the surface and dampen our time together. I’ve missed them my whole life and didn’t know who they were.
I was home one day visiting my parents after work when the phone rang. The woman on the other end introduced herself and said she’d gone to school with my sister years earlier, she remembered our unusual surname. I told her my sister wasn’t home.
“Oh, I’m not phoning to talk to her,” she said. “I met someone who might be related to you. I promised her I would call. You could be family.”
I heard the excitement in her voice. She thought she’d solved a mystery.
“My only distant relatives are in Greece,” I said, prepared to hang up.
“I met this woman in New Brunswick. She has the same last name as yours.”
“I don’t have family in New Brunswick.”
“No, she’s from Boston. Her first name is Stella.”
“That’s my name.” Then I remembered the Greek tradition of giving a daughter the name of the family matriarch. Stella was my grandmother’s name.
The woman offered a phone number with a Boston area code.
My father made the phone call that night as I listened in. It turned out my dad was the other Stella’s uncle. I had an American cousin. No. Wait. Three.
Within days my cousins arrived. At the airport, I remember exploring their faces for some resemblance. They had our high cheekbones, pale olive complexion, and narrow noses. But did we have anything else in common? They hadn’t grown up as we had in a two-parent family with old-world traditions. They’d been raised in foster homes. Maltreatment was metred out by strangers who were supposed to protect them. My oldest cousin kept them together even when they were separated by social workers.
After their father, my uncle, abandoned them, their mother died of cancer. They lived with their maternal grandmother until she died.
Long before they found us, my mom had suggested to my uncle to call his daughters or send them a gift on their birthdays. She always remembered their birthdays. I never knew. My uncle didn’t take my mom’s advice. Instead he drowned her words and his guilt in several long-necked brown bottles.
My uncle who finally reconnected with his daughters because of a stranger’s persistence has since passed away. His ashes are buried on one of my cousin’s properties near Boston. He is with them in death as he could not be when he was alive.
We visit my cousins. They have been to see us. We find more similarities than differences. It’s difficult to say goodbye. Still one will say, I wish we’d found you sooner. And again, I will wonder what it would have been like to grow up without that terrible longing in our lives.
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