Teri Orr: Giving thanks for family — even the family you didn’t know you had
Do I start with the 23andMe test I took last summer and my sign-up for ancestry.com and how it linked me to the people who were always my people but I never knew were my people? Or maybe I start with the perfect fall starry night on the flat rooftop garden of the warehouse/home in San Francisco — south of Market with my — maybe — second cousin? Or the sun-filled room in the hills of Marin in a kind of perfect elegant treehouse built amid the oaks and manzanita and lived in by the fully upright and funny and incredibly bright, kind 92-year-old woman who turns out to be my cousin but feels like my favorite aunt I have always known and yet just met?
What is family? The people we share blood lines with — sure. The people we share meals with for years — worship with — live with? Raised our children side by side. Sometimes blood and not blood cannot be separated and sometimes blood lines cannot be denied.
It turns out — after a very long time of thinking I was not connected to any people on my father’s side of my family — he was an only child — I not only have people — but people who click everything into place in my long life of missing pieces…
At the fear of this sounding like a bad, made-for-TV movie, let me say it is all here — relatives who went missing for decades, socialites in SF in the ’50s, a great great somebody who worked in the San Francisco Mint for 10 years in the 1800s and then got fired along with some other Irishmen. And they may or may not have been putting gold dust/shavings into their pockets in the refinery and walking out with a mystery fortune that allowed them to buy homes and land in The City… Strong women who didn’t leave their husbands legally but often took long walkabouts as needed — to venture even here to the southwest and buy Navajo rugs at the Hubbell Trading Post — like I did — decades ago…
There were highly skilled shooters in my family — photographic shooters — who not only understood the dynamics of the optics needed to create a great single shot but also drove a moving pictures camera in the ’30s. One man, Forrest — created an entire eyeglass empire based upon his deep knowledge of how a lens works — in and outside of an eye.
There is a three-story Victorian Christmas cookie-looking home on McAllister Street built in the 1860s that still stands and stayed within the family for over a century where the Dougherty sisters — who came from County Donegal — married and shared their home with a beat cop and maybe the guy who worked in the mint … and raised their families on different floors of that house.
I have an earthenware pitcher that is blue and gray and it survived the 1906 earthquake … in that home. But I never had connected those dots with real people. Let alone people whose people might one day be people I would meet and instantly feel at home with. NPR people. Horse people. A married couple — both women — who have the most beautiful daughter who came to them through a donor. And that daughter turned 18 recently and learned of her biological donor and wanted to meet other issue of these non-unions. So several sperm-related kids met up not too long ago and apparently had a blast getting know to each other. They don’t call each other siblings but rather diblings (the ‘d’ is for donor).
One woman and I had different memories of the same high church theatrical funeral we attended in the ’60s at Carew and English in San Francisco. My grandfather (and her uncle), the Major League Baseball player Bill Orr, was being put to rest in large San Francisco fashion. No one really knew who I was that day. Maybe … I was Bill’s granddaughter or maybe I was his deceased brother, Prentiss’ granddaughter. Many of these folks hadn’t spoken to one another for years or ever … my parents had divorced when I was 6. I only saw my father once after that when I was 8 — he died when I was 16 — a few months before his father, Bill, passed away. And even though these people all lived maybe half an hour away from where I grew up in the Bay Area — we were strangers.
Over the weekend in The City where they had invited me to come out and meet them after reaching out through 23andMe — we shared photo albums and scrapbooks and I brought my favorite hostess gift from my adopted hometown of Park City, Utah … High West whiskey.
And it turns out with all the other pieces I sorta knew about Grandpa Bill — he played and coached at Stanford, the SF Seals and Sacramento Senators and Connie Mack’s $100K infield in the 1913 World Series (he was the shortstop) I had missed a key piece — he also played for and managed … the Salt Lake City Bees in the 1920s.
At the conclusion of the fabulous brunch in the Marin forest in the sun-filled room with beautiful accessible art — a “cousin” — who skied in Park City last year on his Ikon Pass — gave me a carefully wrapped, smallish square gift. I opened it to find inside a clear box that held a red-stitched, white leather baseball — signed by three San Francisco legends — Lefty O’Doul, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Orr. The fact one of the siblings in the room had decided to give up his prized baseball and share it with me — the stranger — flattened and completed me.
I don’t know where this all goes next except forward — with more stories and meals and found artifacts and shared photographs. And the realization it is never too late to find/create your own family.
May your Thanksgiving be filled with family — however you define them — regardless of where they and you may be — this Thursday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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