Finding Family

It’s been exactly eight months since my mother, Gretchen, passed away. I haven’t written about her in almost that long. I think there are a couple of reasons for that.

Partly, it is grieving and not wanting to look at her death and those details closely; it was painful. But truthfully, I also felt my stories had ended. I shared her journey through the aging process from driving decisions and checkbook issues through her growing dementia and the fall-out of Covid. I had completed the arc.

But a remarkable thing happened last week prompting my desire to return to themes of family.

My mom always had a good relationship with her only niece. In the 1960’s, she supported her decision to move across the country at age 18 or 19 to live in Berkeley, California. I’m not sure how often they communicated, but mom was a letter-writer, so I’m sure she sent her family news occasionally. I know her niece reached out when her son was born. I’m confident they spoke by phone as well.

But then it stopped. Letters went unanswered. Eventually, they came back as undeliverable.

We googled her name once to search for an obituary, but we couldn’t find one. She was not in contact with other family members either. It remained a mystery for almost 20 years.

Until last week. Late in the day, my phone alerted me; I had a new notification on the blog. And it was a shock; it was from her son. He had read one of my many stories about mom and left a comment saying in part:

I’m wondering if Gretchen ever talked about my grandmother? Since my mom passed, I don’t have anyone to talk to about family or any family connections.

I knew it was him immediately by his name. Forrest. In a single heartbeat, I was thrilled, sad to learn his mom had died, and strangely, I felt parental.

And that is why I’m writing about Gretchen again. If she was still here (and didn’t suffer from dementia) I would have immediately put them in touch with one another. All but one of the remaining members of that generation are gone. My sister, myself and my cousins are the elders of the family now; whether or not we are ready. Life has moved us into this senior role. Supposedly, we are the ones with the answers.

I wrote back, providing the blog’s email address where we could exchange personal information. We spoke within one day of that exchange. He was eager to talk and ask questions.

What did I know about our family tree? Did my mom ever share anything about her half-sister (his grandmother?) Had I had any experiences with his grandmother?

He is 42 with a family. He was friendly and engaging, with a good sense of humor. He shared that his mom had died suddenly a couple of years ago. It was clear how close they were. It was just the two of them growing up.

We talked for almost an hour. Later, through a text, he wanted to know if Type 1 diabetes runs in our family.

Once again, that question brings me back to mom. I do not have a definite answer for him, but she would have had the history of the past generations in her memory banks. She may have been able to help him. It has been difficult realizing I don’t have access to her “expertise” on family history anymore. There will never be answers to new questions.

And this realization leads me to a suggestion. I once wrote about “interviewing” a parent as part of an oral history project. Here is a link:

I did it a few times, and am grateful for the stories I have, but there are only a few; they barely mine the rich history of specific family facts.

For anyone older than 60, I am learning that we should all open a computer file or even just jot down thoughts on a legal pad about anything and everything that comes up. These can include important health issues in older family members (who were diagnosed with heart disease, cancer or diabetes) who married who and the names of their children. Include country origin results from ancestry blood tests (if applicable), career information, school degrees, nicknames, where they are interred.

These do not have to be stories, they can be lists. Over time, the family’s history will accumulate and provide many practical answers for your grown children and grandchildren.

Family can also do this in reverse. Adult children can start a written history of useful facts by adding to a file as they learn them. They can ask questions too to develop the knowledge further. The focus does not have to be the Epic Yellowstone/Dutton Family Saga dating back to the 1800’s, that sounds daunting. I would keep it simple with useful questions and/or categories with accompanying answers dating back a couple of generations.

There is the old axiom that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” And it’s true, but I think time will help with that. New family knowledge will suddenly spring from a random conversation. The trick is to add it quickly to your notes, while it is fresh.

During our conversation, I asked what happened between his mom and mine. He didn’t get into specifics, but referenced the distance of time and a sense of needing to move past old childhood issues with the family. I understood and appreciated his honesty.

It is the spring of 2023 now and we are looking forward (literally and figuratively) to growing new roots within our family tree.


  1. What a delightful and unexpected surprise. I’m sure you had mixed emotions hearing from Forrest. At least you were able to have some closure. I would consider this an opportunity to share pleasant memories of your mom with an eager listener.

    It’s important to write things down because our memories fade over time. When I ZOOM with my brothers once a month, one of them often brings up something about our parents that I’ve never heard.

    I had a sad experience at assisted living the other day. I had finished reading to my small group and was chatting with them afterward. Two of the folks, delightful people, talked about how they would have to move out soon because their money had run out. I(t’s a nice place, but it’s expensive.) Moving in with family is not an option; they don’t know where to go. No one’s life should end in a horribly-run state facility.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh Pete, I really hate hearing that about your reading group friends. If money is an issue, and they meet the parameters, they need to look into Medicaid. It can happen quickly for those truly in need. Can the place they live now or family assist them with connecting with Medicaid? Mom was in a decent, but not super high-end place, and Medicaid covered her costs. Thanks for your comment about the post. Your ZOOM calls are exactly what I’m talking about. Write down just a sentence or two soon after to at least capture the basic memory; something to reference later. And yes, WHAT a surprise! Most of all, I love that he wants to connect with us, he didn’t have to.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful surprise is right! Maybe you were getting ready to move on from posts about your Mom but fate wasn’t! I’m sure this is just the beginning of a new familial (albeit long distance) relationship. We don’t get too many chances like that in our older lives. You make such a good point about keeping family stories, health issues, names, dates etc for future generations. We tend to take all that for granted. I love to hear stories about my mom or dad from distant relatives. The internet has helped with keeping closer touch. We jumped on the phase when it started. We didn’t follow through with creating a true family tree… but it’s still fun when a notification pops up showing a distant relative! Thank you for sharing your story of Forrest and nudging us into collecting our own family history for future generations!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much Pam. I took the Ancestry test and helped mom take it too 4 years ago. In fact, Forrest asked about that as well and I’ve already sent off the “basic” results to him. 🙂 Like you, I didn’t get the membership to build a tree, but I think it’s fun to confirm that I have strong English/Welsh roots. Yes, after all these years, it was a wonderful surprise to read his words and know it probably took some inner strength to reach out blindly. From there, he has talked to my sister and agreed to share his info with other cousins. What a gift! Now you just have to start a list of those stories and facts you’ve picked up from your distant relatives. 🙂


  3. I perked up reading “I had completed the arc,” knowing full well that what you thought was an ending to your mother’s story has led to the beginning of a whole new venture. And I happy that Forrest was eager to connect and share as well.

    About two years ago Facebook introduced me to a second cousin, a delightful man ten years younger, whom I’ve blogged about. We have visited each other’s homes twice, but it all started with a tentative connection online. You are wise to lay out a plan for us to preserve family history. Brava, Melanie! I certainly look forward to future revelations. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • “A tentative connection online” is exactly our story too Marian. How awesome that it led to real visits for you. Since it’s so new, I don’t know what will happen. I think I’ll probably just take his lead on how he wants to go forward. Maybe we’ll do a Zoom visit sometime? Yes, I did complete the “aging parent” arc, and now fate is stepping in to remind me to concentrate on her younger years. That’s pretty crazy. 🙂 Thanks Marian!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What an amazing story and connection Melanie. Goes to show, we never know who will read our work. So glad you two made the connection. And I’m so with you on keeping a list of things that others in family would someday like to learn about. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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