My heart goes out to our brothers and sisters in Haiti, dealing with the devastating effects of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, the strongest in 200 years.
I listened to the news this morning on the radio in my kitchen while I cleared breakfast plates, the same place I was standing as I took in the news of Hurricane Katrina, 4 years ago. My grandmother, uncle, aunt and two cousins were living in New Orleans when Katrina hit, but they’d had enough warning and resources to seek shelter. My grandmother’s nursing home moved all of its residents to Baton Rouge in anticipation of the storm and my cousins, aunt and uncle found shelter as well, mostly in other states. I was a nervous wreck waiting to hear word that my family was okay and can only imagine the anguish families and friends are feeling now as they await word from their beloveds in Haiti. (Click for ways to help).
I’d actually been on my way to visit my grandmother when Katrina hit. Warnings of the impending storm as well as scheduling problems on our end made us delay our trip. When I did finally get to see her a summer later, I had a list of things I’d been meaning to ask her before another act of nature (a storm or old age) took her from me.
“Do you remember what it was like for you growing up? Do you remember your parents? Did you ever meet Granpa’s people, like Tempy or Josephine and what were they like?” Grandma Lillie Mae was already in her 90s, could no longer walk, but her memory was fantastic. Whenever I called her on the phone, she’d say, “How are your two babies?” and “How is Dennis?” amazing me with her recall of my husband’s and daughters’ names and the ages of my girls as well. That summer day in New Orleans, a year after Katrina, she was having a hard time hearing me with all the other people in the room wanting to shower her with love and attention too. She bounced from straining to hear my questions to smalltalk with my family, until she heard me ask about Tempy.
“Tempy was our cousin,” she said, “Tempy and Al Smith. They were famous musicians and they moved to New York.” I of course was talking about Tempy Burton, my great great grandmother, but Grandma Lillie Mae revealed a gold nugget of information. She’d been close to or at least knew of Tempy’s grandchildren, Tempy and Al Smith. That meant my grandfather had been in close contact with his cousins probably more consistently than the summer vacations I’d spent with mine.
As Grandma Lillie Mae talked about my grandfather’s cousins, I got a snapshot of what her younger life might have been like, newly married and beginning a family with the support of her husband’s extended and musically talented family. I wondered if she got to see the Smiths perform on stage, but she didn’t answer this directly. She just beamed when she described the Smith’s musical accomplishments, and I imagined there was a special security in being attached to her husband’s sprawling clan full of siblings and cousins since she had none.
I had no idea then that I would end up meeting a Smith descendant, my cousin Monique or how valuable Grandma Lillie Mae not answering my direct question would be.
What pressing question would you ask one of your ancestors if you could?