When I was a little girl, my mother taught me this bedtime prayer, “God bless mommy and daddy, Steve and me and all my relations. Please let daddy have a safe journey…” I do not remember how the prayer ended, or if it simply ended there with an “Ah-men.” We always prayed for dad to have a “safe journey” because he was in the Merchant Marine, and at sea more than at home. And because when storms came, it was not unusual for people to pray for them to go out to sea. I haven’t thought about “…all my relations” for a long time. Both of my parents were from large families. We lived near some of my dad’s family in Massachusetts, but we saw much more of my mother’s side of the family and most of them were in Baltimore. Although I occasionally saw Marcellino cousins, it was my O’Hara aunts, uncles and cousins that I knew best and saw most often.
After both of my parents had passed away and I had moved on and out-of-state, I frequently commented that “I wouldn’t know any of my cousins if I fell over them.” And I also said that while I thought my father was very loving, I thought his family were a bunch of cold fish. I had my reasons. (Sorry cousins!) I should say however, that I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, my dad’s mother, when I was quite young, and I loved her. She was from Lisbon, Portugal, and spoke beautiful broken English with a thick accent. She would talk about ‘the old country’ and because of her, I love the sounds of all languages. And my ears tune in to the sounds of regional accents wherever I may be when I hear them.
Something happened recently to make me think again about “all my relations” and to see them with new eyes. The “Something” was that I had an opportunity to go to Onset and spend a whole week. It was the first time in 45 years that I had more than two days in town for a funeral or a quick visit. I had a few unanswered questions about my father and his family before heading home and when I posed them to my brother, he put me in touch with some relatives I did not know existed. They are, in a sense, new relatives. We have always been related; we just didn’t know it and we didn’t know each other existed. I would have known sooner, had I shown my brother’s interest in our family heritage and culture, or even if I had shown interest in the research that he was doing. One keen example of this is when we went home for our mom’s funeral service, besides walking around our home town separately, he and his family went to the town hall to look at birth records, and I went to the beach to look for shells. But several relatives, including my brother and the grandchildren of some of my dad’s siblings have taken advantage of the offerings of Ancestry.com and other similar organizations and started digging.
In some cases, the cousins who were doing this research have been at it for years, in other cases; some of us have only recently turned our attention to our father’s or grandparents’ family, and have only recently come to the party. Nevertheless, one day a few months ago, eight of us met for the first time in Antonio’s (Portuguese) Restaurant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, https://www.antoniosnewbedford.com/ for a long, leisurely lunch. With spreadsheets, cell phones and pictures, we compared notes, histories, stories that had been passed down, shared myths and worked our way through “myth-information.” We talked about old conflicts that had torn the family apart, inherited diseases, longing for knowledge and healing.
We found love and hope, in the open hearts of our cousins. We walked each other through some of our individual family stories and helped each other pick up loose threads. We made decisions to repair the breach, to not carry old wounds but to heal them and to go bravely into conversations that perhaps our parents and grandparents would have wished we had left “well enough alone.” We laughed, cried and embraced, scoured the cemetery where the grandparents’/great-grandparents are buried and took pictures.
For me personally, the knowledge I seek is more about my father’s siblings and their children and grandchildren, than it is about those who came before. Because those who came before, are people I can learn something about, but the cousins who are descended from my father’s siblings are people I can know. In getting to know them and their stories, I can see something of my father and grandmother and hopefully, learn something about myself along the way.
So now, I need to pick up something of my old bedtime prayer and say, God bless mom and dad, Steve and me, my spouse and our children and grandchildren…and all my relations. I think about my “new” cousins and a smile breaks across my face and a tear glistens in my eye and there is a spring of sorts in my step that wasn’t there before. I am a vintage chic on a journey of discovery and determined to press on.