Mildred 'Auntie' Kiely and Bob Rich (Keenan's aunt and father) (Rich family photos)
When I first opened up the email, I was suspicious. “Hi Marney,” it read. “My name is Kris and I think we are third cousins.”
I hardly know what second cousins are, much less third. So, when Kris started listing names and lineage — my grandfather and her grandmother were first cousins — it was interesting, but very much abstract.
But then when I clicked on the attached pictures, I was floored. Before me, clear as day, were my mother and father on a Chicago street in 1949. My parents were 32 years old at the time. I had never seen these pictures before. It was like being in a time machine.
Kris wrote the photos were taken at her parents’ wedding. “My mom is 90 years old now,” she wrote. “And she still has the beautiful drinking glasses that your mom and dad gave to my parents.”
I studied the old Packards and DeSotos in the streets and marveled at my aunts’ hats with feather boas, the requisite corsages and elbow-length gloves. My father’s oversize tie is slightly askew, and his trousers are hiked chest high (you’re killin’ it, Dad). There is something both familiar and strange, ancient and new about seeing over a half century-old photos of your own history, of the people you came from before they created you.
Snippets of memories resurface: I swear I can smell Aunt Grace’s homemade pastries or Aunt Ethel’s Pall Malls breath. I can see the seamed hosiery on the back of my mom’s calves. I remember trying to grip my slippery socks on my dad’s wingtips while we attempted the Fox Trot.
Over my shoulder, my 20-year-old daughter studies the faces of her grandparents when they were closer in age to her than to me. She spots resemblance to her cousins. “Wow, I see Michael Patrick in Bobby,“ Ellie said. “And Brenna looks just like Grandma Dell.”
Kris said she and her sister traced our family tree on ancestry.com. Then, two years ago, she and her husband visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where they found my brother Michael. From there, she found me at the paper.
She asked for some clarification of family lore and help in identifying relatives in photos. One of my brothers wrote back: “The story regarding the Kielys is correct, except that Mom’s father was Tom Kiely. Our grandmother, Dell (Butler) Kiely, died in 1917, within weeks of giving birth to our mom. Our grandfather, Tom, died a year later in the flu epidemic in 1918. So, our mom was raised by her father’s two sisters and brother, Aunts Ethel, Mildred and Uncle Burt.
“We’ve never known what the actual mishap was that resulted in her death. Mildred (whom we called ‘Auntie’) once told me that childbirth was far more perilous back then, and complications were more readily accepted.
“One would think that Mom had it rough, losing both parents so young, but she never perceived it that way. ‘I simply had two moms and a dad, not a bad deal,’ she would say.”
Kris said she had more photos to share and stories, too. So now we correspond regularly. I since recognize my godfather in one of the group shots and wonder what became of him. I’m also very curious about my grandmother’s lineage, since she died so young. I figure if Ellie can see her cousins in her grandparent’s faces, I’m anxious to see what traits I recognize in mine.
Plus, the photos bring them to life. I look at them and swear I can hear my father’s laughter.