On a cold wintry morning on the eve of the Civil War some 150 years ago, a dashing red-headed French baker and a wide-eyed, dark-haired Irish seamstress pledged their undying devotion in a loving embrace before God as they were joined in marriage in a small Catholic church in Shreveport, Louisiana. The bond they shared made them feel strong and invincible, the same way it had made their parents and grandparents feel.
The world lay before Francois and Catherine Perrotin, and they knew could do anything together. They dreamed of the places they would go and the children they would have, and they resolved that this wonderful love they had for each other would flourish and keep their family strong and close and great.
Little did they know that over a century later, a handful of their sixth and seventh generation descendants would also embrace in the atrium of a California hotel, brought together by the same bond that had united Francois and Catherine and reuniting a family whose branches, separated by an ocean and scattered throughout three continents, had lost contact for over a century.
Our reunion with Don and Jennie Murray of Gloucestershire, England, was definitely a dream come true and just as magical as we had hoped. My father, Gilbert Huesca, my husband, Charles, two of our children, Michael and Erin (Our son Kevin had to work that day) and I met the Murrays at the Burlingame Embassy Suites for brunch on Sunday, February 26, 2007. A very kind reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, Scott Herhold, joined us to cover the historic occasion.
Unlike some first meetings in which you look at each other awkwardly and try to think of something intelligent to say, we never stopped talking from the moment we met. How else could it be? With so many family stories to share and mysteries to explore, we plunged into a conversation that lasted until well past nine o’clock that evening.
We spent the rest of the week visiting local Bay Area landmarks: Mission Santa Clara, Big Basin State Park, Monterey, and Carmel. We also spent a fair bit of time at our home, studying family pictures, marveling at common characteristics, and figuring out who went where on our ever-growing family tree, which incidentally, took up three walls in our kitchen. And of course, we took a fair amount of pictures of our own.
By the time the Murrays returned home to England, it was hard to say goodbye. We felt we had always known each other, and maybe in a strange way, we had. It was as if Francois and Catherine, the links that had brought us together in the first place, had planned the whole thing.
Meeting Don and Jennie was just the beginning. We have stayed in close touch, sharing yesterday’s stories as we encounter them anew and laughing over today’s stories of our respective present-day families. Since our first contact, I have “met” seven other members of their extended family, living in Spain, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.
The e-mails and phone calls keep coming and along with them come old family pictures, letters and always, more stories. I am continually amazed by the pride in and passion for this heritage of ours – a common thread, it seems, perhaps sewn into the fabric of our family by seamstress Catherine O’Grady Perrotin.
I had hoped to write about this sooner, but I must make a confession here. The Murrays’ visit struck such a personal chord with me, that it has been almost too personal to write about. These long-lost cousins, this newly-found family, have moved my heart so deeply with their love for and devotion to one another and their desire to keep our history alive for those to come.
And yet it is important to record this event, because it is all about a very special celebration. Not just my own, or my father’s, or my children’s, or Don and Jennie’s, but a celebration of our wider family – those who could not be there to join us but who share in this blessed family heritage.
It is about the reunion of a family whose branches each thought the others had perished tragically, only to discover them years later, alive and flourishing. It is about individuals who taught each other about their ancestors and in turn learned something valuable about themselves. It is about an appreciation of grandparents and great-grandparents and collateral relatives we never knew but whose quiet influence still reverberates in our own lives. It is about a celebration of the family.
To celebrate the family is to know that we are not alone. Whether near or far, whether we know it or not, another person shares a common facial expression, walks the same way, cries for the same reasons, drives a similar car, maybe even likes the same movies or gives their children the same names.
To celebrate the family is to understand who we are and how we got to be that way. It is true that each of us is unique, but we are who we are in great part thanks to – or in some cases, in spite of – someone else who was there first. Someone blazed a trail for us, consciously or not and whether we chose to follow it or not. Though they lived in a different time and place than we do today, their experiences and challenges may have been similar.
The experiences that touched our ancestor’s lives, from major events such as migrations, wars, and disasters to everyday occurrences such as courtships, Sunday dinners, misunderstandings, and vacations, to personal characteristics such as a particular skill or choice of a common trade or religious convictions, form us in mind and heart.
To celebrate the family is to honor those who have gone before us. We discover and learn from their struggles and triumphs, share their joys and cry over their sorrows. We rejoice in the present, daring to live with purpose and faith and passion, giving unabashedly of ourselves to our loved ones near and far. We look ahead to the future, keeping alive the traditions, stories and values that define us, in the hope that they will enrich the lives of those who are yet to come.
In doing all these things, we reinforce the foundation that was laid so long ago and pay tribute to a family that has taken risks, supported each other through good times and bad, and thrived through the generations.
Thank you, Francois and Catherine, for your legacy of love. It has endured and grown beyond your wildest dreams, and it is what binds us together and keeps us strong and close and great. And that is cause for celebration.