Friday, June 16, 2006

Reciprocation

A few years ago, I started searching for my mom’s Uncle Atha Jackson. He had gone off to fight in World War I, had returned home for a short time, and then disappeared from the family forever. There were apparently a few furtive phone calls home back in the 1930s, but then the lights went dark, so to speak, as to what had happened to him. My mom had mentioned him several times, but on one particular night, the topic came up and I decided to see just what I could do. Mom had told me that her father had searched for decades for his brother and had never located him. Apparently, Granddaddy Carlisle went so far as to write to the Federal Government Veterans' Affairs Department and learned that Atha was living somewhere in the US, but that they had to respect his privacy and could not tell him where Atha could be found. My grandfather went to his grave in 1961, never having learned the fate of his brother. That night, I spent a mere two hours on the computer and discovered Uncle Atha had a death certificate on file from Los Angeles, California.

The story of Uncle Atha unraveled a bit slowly afterwards. I was able to write to the State of California and obtain a copy of his death certificate. From that, we learned that he had married, that he was a typewriter repairman who lived in what is now a chic neighborhood of West Hollywood and that his wife was a lady named Luella. We also learned that he had been buried by a local mortuary service and that he was interred at the National Veterans' Cemetery in LA. A cousin wrote to the cemetery to find the exact location of his grave and was given the designations for his section of the cemetery, as well as the lot, the row and the grave number. Not having any family in southern California, we felt that we had reached the end of the road for this story. As for survivors and existing distant cousins that might have survived him and their mother, we were unable to find any information. The funeral home that buried him (and former President Ronald Reagan) refused to even tell us if there had been an obituary and we could not find one in the LA Times or any smaller, local newspapers. They cited HIPPA laws as a reason for withholding information that they might have held.

So, I put the story of Uncle Atha to bed…after having written about him in my blog and in articles for the Sampson County Heritage Book that will be published soon in North Carolina. I figured that some day, someone else could take the information that we found and use it as a springboard for further research.

In the meantime, I grew tired of chasing down all of the relatives I could find for as many branches of my family as possible and turned my attention elsewhere. Among my interests was the film 1 Giant Leap (yes, I know I mention it a lot, but it really is an amazing film that you should watch at least once) and I became involved with the bulletin board for the film’s website. Soon I became a member of a small group of amazing people who were regulars on that site and I was invited by the filmmakers to be interviewed for their upcoming film. My topic was to focus on my life with Lazarus Syndrome. In the process, my poundcake baking became a topic of discussion and I sent a cake to Jamie Catto in London for a year-end holiday gift.

Soon, I found myself sharing my “poundcake love” with people from around the US and the world. I would bake a cake and hobble down to the post office to ship it off to places like Sao Caetano do Sul, Brasil, Heidelberg, Germany, Brisbane, Australia, Mallorca, Spain, etc. I did this to share part of my southern heritage with people from other cultures and, although it costs quite a chunk of change to ship poundcakes around the world (they weigh 5-7 pounds each and have to be shipped by express mail), I gladly did without thought of receiving anything in return. The unimaginable amount of gratitude and love that I received in return was more than enough to keep my quirky little pastime moving forward. It was particularly satisfying when friends would return photos of my cakes sitting in their homes, and then the next photo, taken just a few days later, would depict a crumb-littered plate.

(Left: A poundcake, fresh from the oven.)

One day, I found myself shipping a poundcake to a friend and surgeon in Los Angeles, CA. Later, when I learned that Uncle Atha had been buried in the Veterans' Cemetery in LA, I blogged the story and shared the link with my friend, telling him that he might find it interesting given the setting in Los Angeles. Little did I know, but my friend worked part-time, volunteering his services to perform surgery for our veterans at the local VA hospital. Next, I learned that the VA hospital in LA is located across the street from the cemetery where Uncle Atha was buried.

My birthday rolled around not long afterward, and I opened my email in-box to find a note from my friend from California. It had attachments. When I opened the file, I found that he and his son had paid a visit to Uncle Atha on my behalf and had taken photos of his gravesite. There, to my amazement, was the first photographic evidence of what ultimately happened to Uncle Atha. I immediately posted those photos online on a family website.

One good deed spawned another and I am so grateful for having given and for having received. Once I shared the photos, my elderly mother, her brother and remaining sisters and an elderly cousin (also a genealogy fanatic) all saw, finally, for the first time, photographs of Uncle Atha’s tombstone. It may seem a bit dark to you, but they were thrilled to have evidence that he had settled somewhere, that he had been cared for and that his family had seen him buried with dignity. I could not possibly replace the feelings that were inspired in them to have settled a mystery, nor could I replace the gratitude for my friend’s act of reciprocation. A while later, I shipped another poundcake to Los Angeles, and in return, I found a cooler on my doorstep containing gourmet pasta, organic pasta sauce and a huge chunk of fresh parmesan cheese from a high-end shop in the LA area.

This is proving to be a very nice arrangement. I get a taste of the best of California and my friend receives deliciously dense, good-ole southern poundcakes in a variety of flavors.

(Cemetery photographs courtesy of my friend in Los Angeles, whose identity will remain anonymous. Thank you!)

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