Monday, August 11, 2014

Reunion Revisited

Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel and her daughters reunited;
Sandra (Miller) Canen, Carol (DePrato) Lacopo, Dianne (Strukel) Moore
Elkhart, Indiana; November 1982

So many things could have happened after that momentous, emotional evening in November 1982 when Helen Strukel met her daughter, Carol, for the first time since giving birth nearly thirty-six years before (see Hoosier Daddy?: Reunion).  Reunions like these can be tear-jerkers from the start filled with questions and wonderment and newness, but they can easily and slowly devolve into a sense of apathetic attachment. After all, living locally were three adult sisters who were women with separate busy lives and six young children between them. Additionally, there were two adult brothers living over 2,000 miles away in Portland, Oregon. Tying the five together was sixty-five year old widowed mother in Elkhart, Indiana. It could have been very easy to make tearful introductions and then let everyone fade back into the routines of their lives.

But quite the opposite happened. Carol, who was raised an only child, and Dianne, who despite a number of half-siblings mostly did the same, found in each other the sister they longed for growing up. The following month involved spending Christmas time in Elkhart with new relatives. When Carol turned thirty-six on New Year's Eve, 1982, she received thirty-six birthday cards from her brother Ted in Oregon: one for each birthday he had missed growing up. Looking back, I do not recall a transition phase, an awkwardness, or a period of politeness and niceties. These people were truly family in every sense of the word, and joking, ribbing, teasing, swearing, crying, ranting, supporting, nurturing, laughing, chatting, visiting, and loving each other came quickly and easily. Helen became Grandma Helen to me, and calling her such wasn't forced or odd.  I grew close to her by spending many hours pestering her for genealogical information. My ancestral fervor sparked interest in Dianne, and together we dragged Helen to Rensselaer, Indiana, where her parents grew up and married, and we listened to her tell tales as we traipsed through cemeteries. In the summer of 1983, I accompanied Dianne and the rest of her family on a vacation to Washington, D.C., where we pored over passenger lists looking for Strukels coming to America.

Helen, Dianne, Sandy, and Carol
Elkhart, Indiana, 1983

For Carol, Mother's Days brought lunches together with both Rita and Helen. I never asked my grandmother directly how she felt about "sharing" her daughter with her newfound mother. She was supportive of the endeavor when we began our search, but looking and finding can be two entirely separate entities. I never sensed any jealousies or awkwardness. I think Rita was happy that Carol found the answers that she had sought, and I think Helen was happy that Rita provided a loving home to the daughter she gave away in 1946. So I never felt any competitiveness between mother, but to be truthful, I do think my grandfather was secretly relieved and a bit glad that he was the only father in the picture.

In 1985, Helen was able to gather all her children together for the very first time. As I write this I wonder what Helen was thinking or how she felt during this time. I was still a teenager, and although there was certainly a sense of excitement, I lacked the life experience to understand the magnitude of it. And never being a parent, even now I cannot imagine what it meant to Helen to have her five children around her. Unfortunately, genealogists all too often become so obsessed with the past, we forget to document the present. Trying to unravel the mysteries of our ancestors is a challenge because they are no longer present to provide us the answers we seek. But we forget that the relatives living and breathing around us have stories too. And we unfortunately treat those people as renewable resources: "Oh, I'll just ask her tomorrow." But there comes a day when there are no more tomorrows, and we are left with many, many unanswered questions.

Back: Ted Miller, Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel, Jerry Miller
Front: Carol (DePrato) Lacopo, Dianne (Strukel) Moore, Sandy (Miller) Canen
Elkhart, Indiana, 1985

For me, 1985 brought a graduation from high school and a move to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Visits home were frequent enough because of proximity, but they largely involved holidays and weekends with little socialization with extended family. Thus visits with Helen were brief and infrequent due to distance and timing, and my memories of her are few once I entered into my college years. 

Helen was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 1987, and her health declined rapidly. "Bars" Strukel stayed by her side and took care of her night and day despite his own poor health, even when the cancer spread to Helen's brain and made her difficult and confused. By the time I had returned home for the holidays, her condition had deteriorated considerably. I did not get to see her in her last days. I was told that I would not want to see her in her condition, nor would she know who I was, and  I was secretly relieved. Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel died at home on Christmas Eve, 1987, at the age of 70 years. Instead of reveling in holiday good cheer, I was frantically searching for a suit jacket and tie to serve as a pallbearer for the funeral of my grandmother. She was laid to rest in Prairie Street Cemetery in Elkhart next to the husband she lost nineteen years before.

Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel lived a remarkable life in relatively unremarkable surroundings. She experienced the whole range of human emotions and conditions that we are all susceptible to, and yet despite their commonality, hers were unique. Her story, like everyone's story, is a fascinating one, but the one thing she took the greatest pride in was being a mother. And in the end, she was able to have all her children together. And even though it was only five short years spent with her entire brood, it was one of great joy and happiness for her.

But as I mentioned, when those around us die, they take with them their stories, their feelings, their memories, and their perception of the world and people around them. And when they die, they take their secrets with them too.

Yes, they take their secrets to the grave.


  1. How great to have been part of this reunion!

  2. This has been a fascinating tale of your grandmother. You have squeezed out every bit of the drama of living.l Thank you for sharing. Rebecca Black

  3. Thank you for sharing all of this. I stumbled into your blog while searching for Timmons relatives. Not sure if we're related but I got caught up with the story. You are a fine writer.

  4. Wow. What a story. My husband has his own "tales we will never know" surrounding his mother and her relationship with his father, so your story and what you managed to uncover has been riveting. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Wow. What a story. My husband has his own "tales we will never know" surrounding his mother and her relationship with his father, so your story and what you managed to uncover has been riveting. Thank you for sharing it.