May 17, 2014,
Montgomery, Alabama, about 1 p.m.
I’m in a car with Carol B., whom I met in person five minutes earlier. She picked me up from my friend Margaret’s house in Montgomery.
Carol’s taking me to meet her mother, Jule Wilson Perry, who I found about six months ago — and, still, even though has been several months since I made first contact with Jule — I remain in a sort-of shock and awe about it.
I’m surprised I found her.
I’m surprised she’s even alive.
Jule, you see, is Emmett’s niece. The daughter of Emmett’s twin brother, Julian. As of today, she’s a healthy 97-year-old; clear, coherent, sharp. As a whole, the Wilsons were not exactly long-lived people; but Julian and Jule seem to be exceptions.
What also rocks me about this whole upcoming meeting is the understanding that she is the only person alive today who would have laid eyes on Emmett.
She would have shared the air with him in the same room. She knew the family stories. She has the family DNA…
… and the idea of all of this, that this woman is the closest living connection to Emmett Wilson, dead since 1918, is only minutes away, thrills and scares me at the same time.
That’s probably coming out in my demeanor as we ride to Jule’s apartment. I’m sitting stiffly, my seat belt across my chest and lap; clasping my hands a little too tightly. I have a potted flowering plant for Jule next to my briefcase at my feet, all a bit crammed awkwardly onto the floor of Carol’s car. Carol glances over at me and gives me a friendly smile.
I smile back.
I have nothing to fear, but I am afraid. I don’t know what to think; this flood of existential questions gushes forward:
‘What am I doing here? What the hell am I supposed to be getting out of this crazy, self-imposed, self-directed project that has taken over my life? How in the world did I wind up in the car of a lovely woman who is distantly related, but also a stranger to me at the moment?’
Make no mistake: Both Carol and Jule know why I’m here. When I contacted them six months agoI made no pretense to either Jule or to Carol about how I got here in the first place; that I’m chasing information based on some strange and oddball request (that I very well may have IMAGINED) one late night as I had stared at a man’s photo, a voice asking me to tell his story…
…what the hell. Perhaps my discomfort is simply the fact I did not sleep well last night at my friend’s house, and I drank way too much coffee with little to eat all day.
Carol’s cell phone rings. “Excuse me,” she said, as she pushed a button on her steering wheel to answer it.
“No, sorry,” she says. “I can’t be there this afternoon. I’m driving my cousin to see my Mother at the moment….”
— and just like that, I feel relief and happiness wash over me. I’m not a stranger anymore.
“Sorry about that,” Carol said, smiling at me as she disconnected the call. “You said you had a funny story about Mama?”
I tell Carol about how I had come across Jule’s information initially from census reports, but then, her name was mentioned in an obituary about Julian, so that is how I was able to find her. There was a telephone directory listing from a few years back; I didn’t know if this was the same person, but I took a chance and made a cold call.
“I asked to speak to Mrs. Perry, and a lady answering the phone was very formal and polite, and said she wasn’t there. I asked if I could leave a message, and the person said yes, a little hesitantly.
“So, I tell her my name, that I am with the University of Maryland, and give a very brief description of the research project about Emmett.
“Suddenly, all formality is swept aside. She said, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m actually writing my own father’s story! You know my father was actually Emmett’s brother, don’t you?’ And I knew it was Jule!”
Carol laughed. “That’s Mama. She’s a force to be reckoned with; I guess you realized that right away.”
“Yes. But I also know someone calling out of the blue from 1000 miles away can be off-putting. I get that. That’s why I asked her to give my email and phone number to you in that call, so you could check up on me.”
Carol nodded with understanding. “I appreciate that.”
As she turned into the parking lot of the assisted living apartment complex, and pulled into a parking space, I felt my stomach tense up. “I’m nervous,” I admitted to Carol, with a laugh.
She briefly touched my hand. “Don’t be. The letters and clippings you’ve been sending Mama this past year have been wonderful. She had no knowledge at all of her father’s family before this — she really has enjoyed getting to know you through your research. This has really been good for her, and I appreciate it, too.”
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