Some 35 years ago, we organized a reunion of the survivors of the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928. Some 200 survivors and family members of California's worst man-made disaster met on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. One woman saw an interview of me on Channel 4 News and contacted the reporter, Diane Dimond, who put her in touch with me. Vera was excited to tell me all she knew about that horrible disaster --- a disaster that took the lives of her cousin, her cousin's husband and their little boy. Vera jumped on board and became a volunteer of sorts. She would call me just about every day and send me stuff weekly --- sometimes more often. She pointed me toward another cousin who had evidence that documented prior knowledge that the dam was in danger of giving way.
Today, I read through the many letters that Vera had sent me 35 years ago. I re-read things I had forgotten about. The more I read, the more I felt guilty for not having completed the book we were working on at the time. But that's not the confession I mentioned above. I'll get to it.
In one of her letters, Vera said that he had photos of many of the people who were key to the story of the dam --- and some of them showed these people on the dam itself. I knew that Vera had passed away many years ago, so I went in search of her son. Fortunately, Vera had given me his address back then. So I tracked down her son's address and phone number and called.
The man who answered was sort of silent when I asked for the person by name. "Why do you want him?" I explained that I had worked with the man's mother, yadda, yadda, yadda. "My father died a couple of years ago," the young man said. I hate it when that happens. But eventually, the only child became interested in the letters and materials I had that his grandmother had sent to me. I send him a 12-page story she had written for me, "Childhood Memories." And I promised to send him copies of the other letters she had sent.
I asked him about the photos his grandmother had said she had. "I have a bunch of photos my father (Vera's son) had left me." I held my breath and bit my fingernails awaiting his call with the results of his quick look-see. His photos only went back to the 1950s. This is the oldest photos he had. Somewhere in the conversation, he said that his father's sister might know more. But he didn't know how to reach her.
I searched birth records and was able to identify her. I searched marriage records and found her married name. I searched property records and phone records and found her today.
I called her.
Here's the confession --- the bonehead mistake I made. Once I knew she was Vera's daughter, I began to explain what I was up to and what I'd done so far. I told her about talking to her brother's son and how he told me that his father had died.
"What? My brother is dead?"
Holy crud! I hate it when I do this. I hate it when I automatically assume family members know everything about their own families. It had happened when I finally tracked down my step-father's oldest son by a prior marriage. I had proudly told Dave that I was the stepson of Edward C. Ripley. Dave then asked me where his father was --- he'd been looking for him for 50 years. Then I had to quell my excitement and tell him that his father had died 30 years earlier. Bummer.
But back to today's story. Vera's daughter had to hear it from me that her brother had died. I didn't prepare her. I just blurted it out. I'm such a jerk! Fortunately, Vera's daughter was very kind to me and tried her best to make ME feel better. What a great woman --- just like her mother.
The silver lining is when she told me that all of her mother's things and photos had disappeared. She had nothing. And she had no living siblings --- not even a cousin. She was without blood relatives now. Except, that is, for her brother's son. Yes, there had been a falling out between Vera's daughter and son a couple of decades ago. "He just hung up on me and we never spoke again, Vera's daughter told me.
But now, I had something positive to share with her. First, I gave her all of the information about her nephew --- a really good kid in his early 20s. Then, I was able to share with her this photograph. When I started to describe it, she told me every detail, ever though she hadn't had the picture for many, many years. I was also able to sent her the 12-page story her mother had written 35 years ago.
So two very kind people who thought they had no close relatives and probably talking on the phone right now. I'm scanning the rest of the stories and letters Vera had written to me and I'll share them with her daughter and grandson.
And maybe I'll learn my lesson.
By the way, my book is going to be awesome!