I like surprises. We had one show up in our mailbox the other day. A manilla envelope from one of my wife’s cousins out in Lone Grove, Oklahoma. Big, bold black marker writing on the address. Like she thinks we need bifocals for reading, or something. NASA could read this writing from a satellite in space.
I handed it to Beth. “This looks like fun.”
“Oh my. I was wondering when that would show up.” She obviously was expecting something from Oklahoma. She doesn’t tell me everything, so I was the only one in surprise mode. “Leslie must have sent it to me.”
We sat down at the kitchen table and dumped the contents out in front of us. A few dozen black and white photographs. Her Mom and Dad and three girls in cute dresses standing in front of a dusty house on the Oklahoma plain. Scrub trees and a barbed wire fence in the background.
There were a few old yellowed and brittle newspaper clippings. Even a Western Union Telegram sent out to Wilson, OK from Selma. March 21, 1955. My wife’s birthday. “New baby arrived 8:05. 5 lbs. 3 1/2 oz.” She was so tiny. “Gloria and Elizabeth Ann doing fine.”
There was always a little bit of a mystery in my mind with that Oklahoma crowd. I’ve been out there, and there’s a bunch of them. “We call them our cousins, but they’re really not”, my wife says. It took me a while to figure that one out.
It all started with Beth’s granddaddy. Earnest E. Guinn. Born 1907. He had two kids, Beth’s Mama being one of them. Then in 1935 his wife died while in labor and a set of twins was lost. It must have shaken him up something terrible.
The dates are fuzzy, but sometime in the next year or so, he got out of Selma. He dropped off his two kids at the front door of the Methodist Children’s Home, turned away and left for good. Beth’s Mama was about 5 or 6. She and her brother were two scared little children left wondering what the heck happened. By age seven, she found a new life with a foster family in town.
For a long time, no one knew exactly what happened to Earnest. Turns out, he landed in Wilson, OK and married a woman named Ines. She had been married several times before. She had kids by her previous husbands, and the two of them had one of their own. Cecil was Miss Gloria’s younger half-brother. All the other “steps” came with the package. So, when all of these fine folks got together to visit in the summertime, it took a calculator, pencil and paper for me to figure out exactly how all of them were related.
The most amazing part of the contents of this parcel is a collection of letters. There are only five of them. They are wartime letters sent from PFC E.E. Guinn, 170th General Hospital APO 562. He drove an ambulance for the Army during WWII.
May 26, 1945
I think you are the best wife a feller ever had. Don’t know what I would ever do without you and don’t want to find out. Sweet, I wasn’t worried about you going to the dance. Guess I was just a little jealous. I’m just afraid you won’t love me when I get back.
May 29, 1945
Guess I had better tell you I love you before you forget it. All we are doing now is pulling routine duty which is enough to keep us busy. I want to see you worse every day and I know I love you more every day.
June 1, 1945
We got a couple of barrels of American beer in over here and I tried to drink all of it. We have had none since I left the States. Will sure be glad when I get back and can have a bottle with you. Is it warm over there? We still wear our coats at night here. This tent is cold.
June 8, 1945
How’s my girl tonight? I sure will be glad if I ever get to see the kids again. I hope you won’t let them grow up before I get back home. I haven’t heard from the kids in Alabama since about four months ago. Guess they have forgotten all about me. Better stop now. So you be sweet and remember I love you.
August 8, 1945
Are you about mad enough to quit me? I would talk you out of it. We left camp and I forgot to take my papers with me. Sorry I didn’t write but I never stopped thinking about you. We are right out in the middle of the woods in what used to be a German ammunition dump. There is no town close by at all. I have to drive about 15 miles to get the wounded to the hospital. Will sure be glad when I can come home and be with you.
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of a messy family history. I always had the feeling that some of Beth’s family thought of Earnest as a sorry-no-good-for-nothing-vagabond who left his kids on the steps of an Orphanage and disappeared into thin air. Her Mama certainly carried the weight of an unknown sorrow behind that gracious smile of hers. But the Oklahoma family seemed to know a different Earnest. These letters seem to reveal a regular guy lost in a war who just wanted to get back home to his wife and kids.
I do know that Beth’s Mama loved Cecil to the moon and back. He was the reason she went out to Oklahoma, not some romantic idea of being reunited with her Daddy. When Miss Gloria passed in ’98, it was Cecil and Coelene who drove all the way from Lone Grove to Selma. All 6 ft 5” of him. A burley beard, a brand-new pair of bibbed overalls, cowboy boots shined, white shirt, black string tie and a 10 gallon hat. If you had put a fiddle in his hands you would have thought that Charlie Daniels had come to pay his respects.
These photos and clippings and letters are about family. All the good. All the mess. They are about the things you don’t get to choose in this life. Like who leaves, and who stays. Which ones are your crazy cousins. Which memories are the ones that make you laugh, and which ones make you cry.
They tell of ancestral gatherings born of determination. They prove that blood is thicker than circumstances. That having family cannot always be explained from just one person’s version of the story. That hurt, and shock, and war and love and loss and longing, and forgiveness are the sharp edges that carve us into becoming who we are.
Life brings great disappointment. But it also brings great joy. You get through the things that hurt. You hang on to the things that matter. Little girls sometimes get left behind. But then, if not, there would never have been a Cecil. No summer trips to Oklahoma. No B&W pictures spilling out of an envelope onto our kitchen table some 60 years later. No memories of the best times you ever had with the Longhorn-oil-rig-cow-pony side of your family.
I don’t know the Oklahoma crowd all that well. I’ve only been out to Wilson and Lone Grove a few times. The last time to pay respects to Uncle Cecil. But what I do know is that I am married to the woman who calls them her family. And that’s good enough for me.