I have always felt gypped.

What I know about my relatives could not fill a thimble.

I never knew either of my grandfathers (both were alcoholics). I am told I am a spitting image of my mom’s dad, Sid, who was, by all accounts, a con man of sorts and who did not work a day in his life after he was 35. As a result, he and his family were cast into outer darkness by the Williams clan of Rocky Ford, Colorado. Dysfunction and estrangement soaked through.

My mom had two siblings. Sonny, who, during WWII, came back from Guadalcanal shell-shocked and lived at the VA Hospital in Pueblo, Co., the rest of his life. And Lois. We have no idea the total number of kids she had (7 maybe), the last of whom was Lynn whom my parents adopted in the spring of 1967 while we were still in India (which is a story in itself and that story can be found in the section on India). We do know Lois’ first husband got custody of his kids with her–but we are not sure if it was three boys or four. They were the Best family and we visited them on the way back to the US in 1962 in Hawaii at Al Best’s invitation. And that is pretty much the last recollection I have of them. One of them committed suicide. I believe the other two live and work in California.

We did get to know Grandma Williams, Mom’s mother. She was from Grass Lakes, Michigan, near Jackson, the daughter of a farmer who had done well (the family name was Mellencamp). And she lived to 99 and lived in Denver and I visited her perhaps ten times over the years. She, like my mom, did not like to talk about “the family”. In fact, I can not recall a single conversation with either my mom or grandmother that lasted over a single minute. Answers to questions were short with minimal information. It was clear, very clear, neither of them liked to think about it or talk about it. And when this is the case there is usually pain involved. Unhappy memories have a way of becoming unhappy, and short, conversations.

On my dad’s side the situation was a bit different but with almost the same end result–virtually zero contact with my aunts and uncles and cousins. Dad grew up in a lumber town along the Pacific coast, just south of the Quinault Indian Reservation. His mother raised 4 boys in a small, windblown, clapboard two bedroom house just off the beach (I visited that house once with dad and could hardly believe how small it was). But dad, unlike mom, was open to talking about his dad, his mom, his brothers and his relatives. His dad (Arthur) was an alcoholic and Grandma (Agnes) worked hard to raise the kids. She was a strict disciplinarian and used a quirt she kept handy and had a penchant for striking first and then asking questions later.

Virgil lived his entire life in that area. He had a daughter, Marie, from his first marriage and I have met her a couple of times in my life, most recently at my dad’s funeral last year. Lester became a commander in the Navy and had two kids–Art and Karen. I know I met Art once (but not since 1963) and Karen a couple of times since then. Dell, the brother that bullied dad and gave him all sorts of wonderful complexes that would later lead him into psychology and counseling, had Bobby by his first wife (met him once) and got remarried to Kay and she brought two kids into the marriage (Karla and Steve) and they had one together (Jana). And that, folks, is it. I visited Aunt Irene, Lester’s wife, several times over the years, most of the time with Dad. I have stopped in California a couple of times to visit Uncle Dell and Aunt Kay. And I have had some, slight, contact with Steve Nasland (Christmas cards) over the years. And that is it for Dad’s side of the family.

Mom made no effort at all to help us connect with her family. There were no connections to make, really.

Dad did a bit better, but time and distance worked against him (we grew up in India, a very long way away in those days).

I have always felt more than a bit gypped. I felt no sense of connection to my “family”, whoever they were and wherever they were.

And then I married Judy. She grew up in Mexico, so there was distance involved. But she knew all her relatives. ALL of them. And they knew her and loved her. LOVED her. So, I realized, it did not have to be the way it was for us. What I experienced was a symptom of dysfunction and estrangement.

And then along came Jane Selbe.

Jane suddenly appeared in our lives in the summer of 1968. She was a dentist who lived in the Chicago area and was mom’s cousin, and therefore my second cousin. My great grandfather was a physician who lived and practiced in Rocky Ford (and Manzanola, a nearby village). He had 6-7 kids. One of them, called Doc, became a dentist and lived and practiced in Rocky Ford but every one of the other kids left the area (including Mom’s dad, Sid). Doc had two kids, and both of them became dentists–Jane and Don. Jane married Rex Selbe and began a practice in the Chicago area where she had gone to dental school (the only woman in a class of 135 in 1949)

So, on our way back to the States for furlough in 1968 Jane invited us, the whole family (less Gordy who had started college in Seattle the year before) to stop by.   We did and received a warm welcome from the Selbe family. They embraced us. I felt it. I had never felt it before. So, THIS is what connectivity to family feels like!

And, to my knowledge, Jane was the only cousin mom was in touch with. Mom and Jane had 5 aunts and uncles each, a number of cousins, and for mom, Jane was the only one we knew she knew. And absolutely the only one we knew.

My folks kept in touch with Jane. Later she got divorced. Judy and I eventually went with the Wycliffe Bible Translators to Sudan and she started supporting us financially. How wonderful–a second cousin on board.

Then she retired and moved to Santa Fe. And, rather unexpectedly one year in her late 70’s, met one of her dental school classmates, Herb Hammer, who had lost his wife, and in fairly short order they got married. I made it a point to go to their wedding. The strange thing was that I did not meet many, if any, of her relatives there, just her kids (Susan, Scott and Cindy) and a few of their kids. Jane kept in touch with us, mainly through an assortment of interesting emails–some funny, some touching, you know, you get them.

Judy and I just got back from Jane’s funeral in Rocky Ford, Colorado. About 18 months ago she contracted cancer and in February this year succumbed to it. I called Jane a month or so before she died. She could barely talk.   Susan dropped me a note to let me know when she did pass away and I let her know that I felt compelled (even that is not a strong enough word) to attend her interment. She then asked if I would say a few words and close in prayer, which I was more than happy to do.

Rocky Ford is a small, dusty, windblown little farming community along the upper Arkansas river. Acreage goes for $250 an acre. Unless you have water rights, then it goes for $4500. The area is known for its cantaloupes.

Jane’s ashes were interred in a small plot next to several Baxters (her mother’s side) and a number of Williams (her dad’s side). There were only 14 people in attendance–several friends from Rocky Ford, her brother Don, Don’s ex-wife and her husband, their son Tom and his wife, Sue and her son, Scott, daughter Cindy, Judy and me. Everyone that wanted to had their say. And I had mine.

I never expected this, but through tears I soldiered on knowing what I wanted to say and said it. I never fully realized just how wonderful that connection with Jane was–second cousin though she might have been. But my heart did.

25% of my DNA originated from that worn out little town of Rocky Ford. I doubt I would ever choose to have lived there unless I had been born there–it is just that type of place. For me, it is the origin of no small amount of pain for my grandmother, my mother, and us.

And then there was Jane.


Steve Van Rooy

March, 2014