For a few reasons, I’m thinking about relatives I’ve never met. This post is an updated version of a post from 2015 about my grandmother, Mary Louise Romine.
In 1951, my father was 7 years old and his brother and sister, the twins, were 6. They were living in Vassar, Michigan, and then Millington. Mary Lou worked as a cook in a restaurant; their father Ralph worked as a bartender. They both drank a lot.
Because of their work schedules, Mary Lou had family friends take care of them. A little babysitting became a lot of babysitting. Those friends got tired of taking care of them, so the kids were shipped to their Aunt Eva’s house. She took care of them until one day Ralph picked them up and took them for ice cream at Harriman’s Dairy. After that, he dropped them off at the juvenile home. Most likely it was a legal arrangement the kids weren’t aware of.
Eventually, social workers placed the kids in three different houses full of strangers: foster families. I imagine on his third or fourth night in the new house my dad realized his parents weren’t coming back for him. That was Mary Lou’s first death.
In 1983 or so, a call from a stranger marked Mary Lou’s second death. It went something like this:
“This is [my dad’s] Aunt Loretta,” a woman said by way of a greeting. “I’m calling to tell him his mother is sick with cancer and is asking for him. She doesn’t have much time left.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but where was she all the time [my dad] wanted and needed her?” my mom said. Mom had known Dad since high school, so she knew the family history.
“Oh, I don’t know nothing about that! Will you tell him?”
Mom agreed. Later, Dad said he hadn’t known he’d had an Aunt Loretta. From then on, Dad believed his mother was gone. Mary Lou’s second death.
In 1989, another phone call. No one remembers who told him she had died, either his half-sister Delana or her daughter. It went something like this:
“Hello, this is your sister/niece.”
“What can I do for you?”
“I thought you should know your mother died last night.”
“Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry for the people who care for her, but I am not one of them. Goodbye.”
In 2013, I connected with a relative of his sister and niece on Facebook. We got together for dinner one night. I was nervous; she was the first relative on that side of my family I had ever met. I wanted it to go well. I wanted her to answer questions I’ve had simply with her presence. At some point during dinner, I started describing my dad, her grand-uncle, but she stopped me mid-sentence. She told me she’d met my dad at a wake, Dad’s mother’s, in 1989. I didn’t know he’d gone to her funeral.
My mind reeled to think what I was doing that day. I would have been 15, preoccupied by marching band practices and pool parties at friends’ houses. Too young to understand his need to leave his past alone, to give his sons a less complicated family life.
I know facts about my grandmother now. I know Mary Lou was born in Parma, Missouri, in 1918. She was the oldest daughter of Clayton Romine and Elizabeth Lewis. She married Del Smith in Missouri in 1934 and had three children. She moved to Flint, Michigan, sometime around 1940 and eventually became the head cook of Higgins Restaurant on Corunna Road. She had three more children with my grandfather, Ralph James. She was with Rollie Fletcher and James Harvey as well. She died on November 18, 1989, near Otisville, Michigan, and she was buried near Clio.
I’ve been given pictures of her. She is the woman on the far left of the picture in the polka dot dress. She is the woman who died not twice, but three times. She is the woman who profoundly hurt my father, but she is also the woman who directly shaped my father’s attitude toward his own family, made him want the opposite of what he had. She is a key reason I had a stable and loving childhood, and for that I begrudgingly thank her.