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Drama Inspirational

PUZZLE PIECES

Imagine living most of your life not knowing where your siblings were or what happened to them, living with a tiny hole in your heart and sadness you could never quite shake. Imagine the grief you never had words to explain, coming from a loss you never understood. I feel like it’s in vogue these days to say someone’s story is “theirs to tell,” but I believe that if their story intersects with my story on any level, it’s also my story to tell. Not that I would reveal their secrets or use their stories as weapons, but details are details and every detail is a piece of the puzzle that completes a life. My dad has always loved puzzles.

My dad’s story began in 1938, almost 83 years ago in a small town in Arkansas. He was the third of five children born to a mother who died before she was 40. Her husband, my dad’s father, was in and out of their lives and only the first child, Nadene, and my dad, James, or Willie as he was called then, are full siblings, separated by seven years. The second daughter and two younger brothers had different fathers. It’s human inclination to judge a woman who has children by two or three different men, but times were hard and their “Mama” did what she had to do to survive and take care of them. If that meant bringing someone in for a while to lend a hand, obviously that’s what she did. It didn’t make her children love her any less.

When she died, there wasn’t any father in the picture. Nadene was 14 or 15 and Willie was seven or eight. The details aren’t clear, but four of the children were in foster care or with family members for a few months before being placed in a Baptist Children’s Home. The two babies were adopted. Willie and his sister Jean lived in the orphanage for approximately the next 10 years. Nadene refused to go to the orphanage and “ran wild,” as my dad was told.

For many years he didn’t talk much about that time, but as he’s aged, he shares more of his memories. It’s painfully apparent that his emotional growth was somewhat stunted, but he speaks well of the years he lived in the orphanage and he’s “risen above his raising” to make a success of his life. My parents have been married for over 60 years and there are kids, grandkids, and great grandkids adding to the puzzle.

Throughout the years, bits and pieces of information have found their way to my dad and he’s been able to fill in some holes. He reconnected with his father and met him in 1978 or ‘79. I don’t know what went on between them, but I believe my dad made his peace with the man.

Jean and my father stayed in contact throughout the years and lived only a few miles apart when she passed away. She had one child. My parents took him in as a young man and tried to help him find his footing, but once his mother passed away all contact between them also passed away. I know it’s a missing piece my dad grieves, though he pretends he doesn’t.

He didn’t have any contact with his younger brothers since the early 60’s, but sometime in the 80’s he began communicating regularly with the youngest. From a random phone call approximately three years ago, Willie, or Jim as he’s now known, was able to connect with children of his oldest younger brother. He passed away several years ago, and his children said he was not a nice man, but his children are and came to Uncle Jim’s 80th birthday party. He was thrilled beyond expectations to place a couple more pieces in his puzzle.

Through all the births, deaths, promotions, moves, and the everyday minutiae of life, a tiny piece of Jim’s heart struggled with accepting that he would never know what happened to his beloved sister Nadene. But here’s where the story really gets interesting!

All my life I knew my dad had siblings he never saw. I have three brothers and as I’ve gotten older, I can’t imagine my life without them. Even when we don’t get along, they are pieces in my life’s puzzle and there would be a hole if they were gone. My son is an only child and always wanted a sibling. He felt a loss even when he didn’t know any different. Thinking about all this, I decided to look for Nadene. At that time, she would have been 86 and I knew the chances of finding her were unlikely, much less finding her still living, but I thought maybe I could at least find where she was buried. 

This story wouldn’t have the same ending and I wouldn’t have known where to start without the Internet. I signed on to one of the ancestry websites and did a family search but struck out. I conducted random searches of Nadene’s name and birthdate and variations of both but struck out again. I searched for a couple months but came up empty every time. I was disappointed to have to tell my dad I couldn’t find her. I explained all the steps I went through and the names and dates I searched, the states, the websites. I really wanted this for him, but I had to admit defeat. And then he told me something that made all the difference. I was spelling her name incorrectly.

I went back to the ancestry website and entered the correct spelling of her name and found a connection to an ex-husband in Tennessee. I spoke to the husband of the ex’s daughter and he confirmed that it was the same Nadene. Unfortunately, his father-in-law and Nadene had divorced many years prior and he didn’t have any idea where she was, but I was elated. I was on the right track! 

More digging led me to a woman in Texas who thought Nadene was her father’s last wife. The last she heard, Nadene had moved to Oklahoma but they never knew each other so they didn’t have any contact. 

I kept digging and found an address and phone number. My parents called the number and… disconnected. My dad suffers from a mysterious nervous system condition that causes his head to shake and makes it impossible for him to write legibly, so my mom wrote a letter and provided their phone number in case it really was Nadene. And it was! She is quite hard of hearing so a friend called for her and after 71 years she was reunited with her baby brother Willie.     

My niece graduated from law school in Tennessee almost four years ago and after attending graduation, my parents continued on to Oklahoma for the reunion no one ever expected. My dad is “Brother,” not Willie, not Jim, but “Brother,” and Nadene asked for permission to call my mom “Sister.”  I think saying “Brother” instead of his name indicates just how important that familial connection is to her and she cried happy tears all weekend. My parents created a photo album for her with pictures of the places we’d lived and me and my brothers and our children. Seventy plus years were dumped on her all at once and she quickly went from having no family to being part of a big one.

My dad discovered that the woman in his memories he thought was his mother was actually Nadene carrying him in the yard on her hip or pulling him through the cotton fields on a burlap sack. In pictures, the family connection is obvious, and she suffers from the same mysterious nervous system condition.

Nadene is a tiny, feisty woman who’s willing to go to “fist city” with anyone who tries to tell her what to do. She gives us information about her life in bits and pieces, but enough for us to know she was twice divorced and gave birth when she was very young to a daughter who died as an infant. She lives in a small town where she is well-thought of and people look out for her.  We tried to talk her into coming to the 80th birthday party, but she was afraid to travel too far from home, and no amount of reassurance could change her mind.

My oldest brother met Nadene a few months after my parents did and we have a picture of the two of them standing under an umbrella. She is smiling up at him adoringly, like she’s known him his whole life. I met her about a year and a half ago. I had to go to Oklahoma and see for myself that her living conditions and health and finances were being handled properly. I routinely send cards and letters and pictures to her so she doesn’t forget that she’s part of us. Nadene and my dad speak on the phone at least once a week. They’re both hard of hearing so the conversations aren’t long or deep, but it’s contact, and that’s really all they need.

Nadene will turn 90 years old on August 2nd and my dad, her baby brother, will be 83 on August 14th. It still astonishes me that I was able to find her, that she’s still living, that my dad’s still living, and that we have all met. 

My dad is always working a puzzle and he’s passed the hobby on to his kids and grandkids. We’ve all worked puzzles where a particular piece looks like it should fit. We try and try to cram it into the space not made for it. We do the same with people in our lives, but sometimes the pieces don’t belong in our puzzles and won’t fit no matter how much we want them to or try to make it happen. I like to think that tiny hole in my dad’s heart has been patched, the large hole in Nadene’s life has become a bit smaller, and all of us have added another piece to our life’s puzzles, a piece that fits perfectly.

February 04, 2021 23:48

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