2009: 40 Thoughts in 40 Days

Shortly before my 37th birthday, in the midst of my genealogy obsession, I had run across information on my Parrish family ancestors that had been published in a few books by Irene Parrish Baker.  I asked my mother if she had ever heard of a "cousin Irene", and she had not.  The people she had wrote about were the same people I was researching, certainly we had to be related.

Inside the 3 family history volumes she had already written, Irene often referred to an upcoming fourth volume dedicated to the history of the Parrish family.  Had this volume been written?  Was she still working on it?  Was she even alive to work on it?  I had gathered from what I had discovered of this long-lost cousin that she was no longer a young woman in years.  Silly me for not giving credit to the Parrish women! At 91 years old, not only was she still alive and kickin', but yes - she was still working hard on that last family publication! And after making contact with her, I was invited to come meet her and pour over what would certainly be miles and miles of information on our common family!

Who does that?  Who drives 10 hours to meet a total stranger, only because they share a common ancestor?

I did that.

According to my genealogy program - Irene was my 1st cousin twice removed. Now, after being hit with the genealogy bug for the past 2 years, I still haven't quite figured out that "removed" thing when it comes to cousins. All I know is that my great-great grandfather, William Bryan Andrew Parrish, was her grandfather. My grandfather was his son from his first marriage, Irene's father was his son from his 2nd marriage. So maybe that's where the "removed" card comes into play? (Confused yet?)

Irene was just as amazing of a woman as I imagined her to be - probably even more so.  At the time of my visit, she had recently been put into a nursing home after she had fractured her back, and needed the rehabilitation, medication, and relaxation. Quite honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect upon our meeting. But when I walked into her room, she sat up right and held out her arms to me, welcoming me with as big of a bear hug as she could muster. Her first words to me while we hugged were, "I'm so glad to meet you, cousin!"
My great-grandfather, Charles, was Irene's uncle, so when I introduced my mom and aunt as her "Uncle Charley's grandchildren", she was very surprised, and we had even brought along an old picture of her "uncle Charley" which she had never seen before. Irene was thrilled, and made us promise to give her a copy of the photo for her to include in her book. Then she surprised us.

Irene had written in her book about a set of wedding pictures of her grandfather, William - my great-great grandfather. The story was that the pictures hung on the wall of his son's home for many years, but by the time Irene had begun to write the family histories, the owners of the pictures had both died, and the pictures were nowhere to be found, but Irene was hoping to search for it before publishing her final volume.

That day we visited her, she took my hand in hers and asked me, "Have you seen the picture?" I didn't know what picture she was referring to, and I had not yet been to her apartment. That's when she told us "the rest of the story."

As it turns out, once the owners of the pictures had died, another family member had taken the pictures - only to use the frames they were in, and then moved to Kentucky. As luck would have it, Irene was able to track down where they lived and made the trip to retrieve this priceless family pictures, arriving just after a tornado had gone through the area, and the pictures had been lost from the home. Only miraculously was the picture of William found, face down in a creekbed, and returned to Irene. Although water-damaged, the artist in her promptly set to work at restoring the picture, which she proudly hung in her apartment.

Going in, I didn't know what my part was in this. Irene mentioned to me that there is no one else in our family who was researching this family line. Was that it? Was I supposed to help her finish it?  She also was excited to see that I had purchased one of her 3 family history volumes, as in her words, "nobody buys my books." And that's when it hit me.

This trip was not about me gathering information for my records. It was about meeting this woman who has devoted 50 years of her life to OUR family. It was about sitting and listening to her tell her stories of our family members, stories I had never heard of, and stories my mom had long forgotten she had heard. It was about seeing the common threads that link us together as family. And perhaps, just maybe, it was about being a light in her world. A bright spot that perhaps had been dimmed by what appeared to be a lack of interest in our family's history, now once again had brightened in her eyes.

(Irene Parrish Baker passed away recently, just short of her 94th birthday.)