Lost and Found and Lost
May 8, 2020
The long hand of COVID-19 snatched Barbara from our family. Barbara, one life of 8,952 lost, according to the latest death chart. Barbara, who I just found after untangling reams of genealogical records andcrossing a desert of family estrangement. Barbara, who I was never supposed to meet.
In 2015 I called her husband, Gene, my cousin, and introduced myself. We decided to meet some weeks later at an Atlanta Bread on a highway. Barbara came to support him that day, standing by his side, pretty as a picture with short blonde hair and a red outfit. She extended her hand.
We all sat in a booth where she listened to us trade more than a century of stories and pictures. We filled in blanks for each other. I had a huge one. Barbara, mother of four, had met the grandmother I never knew. She understood the wound and scrambled for a connection.
“I have her roasting pan at home,” she told me, her easy smile lighting up her face. “I use it every Thanksgiving. After all, she was Gene’s aunt. Sometimes she came over to the house for picnics.”
After decades of no contact, she produced the only tangible thing left to bridge three generations—a roasting pan. In the moment her acuity and sensitivity delighted me. Not everyone would have been as thoughtful or as willing.
“You must come to the house,” she said. “We’ll have lunch.”
So a few weeks later I ventured to their house on a lake. At age fifty-six, for the first time, I set foot in a home from that side of the family. Just walking over the threshold felt magical and right. We sat in a room like an art gallery, eating a delicious gluten-free meal she’d lovingly prepared as Gene and I talked on. After a time, we moved past the ancestors and into our own lives—who we were, where we’d been, what we’d done. Just like a family does.
Even at eighty, Barbara, a painter, still worked in an art gallery. She loved her art. It was everywhere in their home. She loved her home. She loved her husband, her children, her grandchildren and, very clearly, her life. She had love to spare.
Just as she was to end a successful treatment program in a rehab facility, the virus came. Having no mercy for the weak, it killed her quickly. We’d had no past. It took our future. The news of her death jolted me. The jolt affirmed the connection, so I was glad to feel it.
Like a black wave, death had taken unreconciled family members for decades. No one was ever notified. No one cared to notify. Many times, news of a death would have been like news of the death of a stranger, anyway.
Like all the memorial services, Barbara’s will be sometime in the future. Whenever it is, I will be there to mark her passing, to say goodbye, to say, “I knew her.”
I started my quest to find my long-gone grandmother, who had abandoned her own children. Barbara had given me a piece of that long-lost past. But the truth is, she gave me more than my grandmother ever would have. She gave me a piece of herself. She stood in that terrible void and imbued it with her grace. And no virus can kill that kind of humanity.
Lorraine Ash, MA, is a New Jersey-based book editor, author, and literary coach.