“When was the last time you did something for the first time?” my Director at my day job asked me recently. It didn’t take me long to answer because the month prior, I had embarked on a solo trip to Tampa, Florida to meet a Sullivan cousin for the first time.
I had found out she was a living relative over a year ago and gathered the nerve to call her one day while my mom was visiting. The beginning of the conversation was peppered with a few awkward silences while I shared what I knew about her family and asked her questions. Following that conversation I emailed her some newspaper clippings and photos I had. I felt I really needed to convince her I was a genuine family member and build trust.
Over the next several months we communicated through emails only and I gained many of her memories and stories in response. Then this year we started discussing how we could possibly meet. Now, she’s a busy lady and travels often to visit her kids and grandkids. She’s a widow with a full social calendar and I’m a mom of 2 who works a full-time job, how could we make this work??
I grabbed a long weekend in April and ran the dates by her with only a week’s notice. She was free! I guess I was headed to Tampa!
The last call I had with her, I described what I would be wearing as she offered to not only pick me up at the airport but invited me to stay at her house. I tried to get her details beyond a cell number but she couldn’t decide if she’d leave her hair white or color it and the only photos I had of her were of when she was a child. She was now in her 70s. Good thing she was finally able to ID me because when you land in Florida looking for a 70 year old woman, well you’ll see them everywhere.
We had an instant rapport and literally spent each waking moment out of the 4 days I was there, talking. I never had a chance to write anything down because we were so engaged in conversation. My main hope out of the visit was to end the mystery of what my great grandfather John W. Sullivan looked like. I felt strongly she would possess a photo that I would just know was him. Unfortunately there was a bag of pictures she once located and could not find again. Each morning she woke early looking for them. I had no time to be disappointed because our visit was so special.
During the car ride to her house from the airport I learned a lot about her independence and interests and how she enjoys driving to visit family in Colorado, New York and Virginia. When I shared that I prefer to fly if going that far, I asked her how she breaks up the long trips and makes them enjoyable. Her response, “I travel by way of casino!”. I knew then that she was a real firecracker.
When we got to her house, I learned that she and her husband had raised 6 children together (2 were his, 2 were hers from previous marriage and 2 they had together). They met as neighbors on the same street she still lives on. I got to meet her daughter and son-in-law the first night. No doubt they wanted to check me and my motives out, so I treated them to dinner at the Olive Garden—I insisted.
Mornings were spent chatting poolside under the lanai and eating Costco cinnamon crunch muffins, days (and most nights)were spent sifting through photos and documents while I feverishly scanned them with my new wand scanner or took photos with my iPad. I listened mostly to stories about her husband and his family and the grandkids because she was young when our shared relatives passed away.
We spent Saturday, my first full day there walking through a boardwalk area of St. Petersburg and then walking and laying on the beach. We both got burned but luckily didn’t peel. We clearly were not paying attention, just gabbing.
Once back at the homestead, she started rifling through her casino “frequent gambler” cards and said there were specials going on at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and we should head there that night. Game of choice (after my own heart), slots. I too acquired my frequent flyer card and got enough points to almost purchase my girls gifts at the Hard Rock shop, almost.
The next morning I attended Catholic church with her, just fitting into her weekend routine. Later her daughter and son-in-law came over and we all headed to an Earth Day event where local greenhouses, growers and landscapers sell their goods directly. I enjoyed more time with the family and we even took photos of us cousins.
One of the photos was taken near a wall where her late husband kept a growth chart on everyone who entered the house (including a pet turtle!). I started to wish we lived closer and could do these things together more. That night I introduced my host to the Macaroni Grill only a few miles from her house. She’d never been there before and was excited to have so much for leftovers!
Monday morning was our last chat by the pool. We spent each day watching this sting ray-looking pool cleaner move about the pool yet never once swam in the pool!
We waited until the last possible moment to leave for the airport. I snuck back into my room and left a postcard note from North Carolina, as she had mentioned she collected post cards when I was about to board my initial flight to Tampa. With a gift of children’s song CDs for my kids and my heated up leftovers, we were off. She waited with me while I ate last night’s dinner and I only headed to my gate when I really had to. It was as if we didn’t want the weekend to end.
I realized that stepping out of my comfort zone to take this trip, never once felt uncomfortable. I still treasure my first meeting of a newly discovered cousin and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. I hope she’ll visit my family and me someday but until we get a nearby casino, I will have my memories.