Three years ago I wrote one of the most difficult columns I’ve ever written. I wrote about my adoption, my eventual reunion with my biological siblings — and my becoming acquainted with their extended families — and ultimately, the passing of my brave, beautiful sister, Martha Ann.
Most of the time it seems as if she passed yesterday, at other times it feels like that gut-wrenching telephone call came 1,000 years ago. I think of her every day. I talk to her often. Recently, reflecting on the grief her passing — from the scourge that is metastatic breast cancer — I began to count my blessings.
First of all, not many adoptees of a certain age have been given the opportunity to not only meet, but establish real relationships with their biological families. We five siblings have been given that chance, even though one of us has chosen not to engage. (It’s hard to believe there’s one harder headed than me, but there is).
Although I mourn my sister’s passing and cherish her memory, I think often about what she’s given to me. Because of her illness, she had the time, and the drive, to reach out to family members, all of whom welcomed us with open arms. She maintained contact with aunts, uncles and cousins, compiled a working genealogy, kept a photo album and attended countless lectures on Appalachian history and culture to help her understand better our Pentecostal, coal-mining heritage. A heritage, by the way, that stands in stark contrast to how we were raised.
In other words, Martha did all the leg-work, and I’m the one who benefited most from her labors.
She discovered we are descended from Sir John Claye, the Coal Baron of Wales, (1558-1632) who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. John Claye, we found out, is also an ancestor of Henry Clay, who served as the ninth U.S. Secretary of State. Unfortunately, we’re not descended from John, but he is a cousin and both of us thought it interesting considering our rather humble roots.
If you had told me three years ago that I would be journeying to Southwestern Virginia attend my biological uncle’s 90th birthday in a few weeks, I would have thought you were crazy. But here I am, planning to travel to a small town in the area where Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, become what I like to refer to as “crunchy.” In fact, there are two towns, Bristol and Bluefield, that straddle two states. Bristol is shared by both Virginia and Tennessee, and Bluefield is in both Virginia and West Virginia. See? They’re “crunchy.”
I’m really excited about this trip. Not only to see my Uncle Russ, who’s the cutest old fella’ you’ve ever met, but to meet cousins “new’ cousins. I’m also excited about seeing the family members I do know, as well as my older brother, who’s driving down from Cleveland, Ohio.
Even now, my Virginia relatives are preparing quite the party. Menus are being readied, lodging arrangements made and many prayers for a fun weekend said. Uncle Russ, they tell me, is looking forward to everyone being there. At 90, it’s not a good idea to surprise a guy, so he’s well aware and anticipating the celebration.
Martha and I, as I’ve said before, had a close relationship, and were fortunate enough to become the sisters we were meant to be from the beginning. We were able to integrate our families and friends and, as I still tell people, had the grace to move seamlessly between our biological and adoptive families.
She also helped me see things from her perspective. Whereas have kind of a “‘darn’ the torpedoes, full speed ahead” mentality, Martha was more measured. Her influence has tempered my approach to things.
I’ve even began asking, “What would Martha do?” when I have a big decision to make. Some days it’s as if she’s sitting on my shoulder, just waiting for a consult.
I may never have a million dollars, write a Pulitzer Prize-winning news story or star in a Broadway show, but what she left me is much more valuable than any material item I can name.
It takes a special person to knit a family together, but that’s what she did.
Her legacies to me are family and love. I hope when I leave, I’m able to pass them on.