Almost there ... .
For a number of years I've been working on the Charbonnet family tree. I knew that the story of my family was fascinating; had hints of a rich Creole culture through my parents, and -- most of all -- through watching my father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, sitting in the auditorium of the University of California Department of Public Health -- giving six hours of oral history over two days in a student seminar. My psychologist husband, Bill Soskin and his friend, Dr. Leonard Duhl (then head of the department) were the interviewers. This would be the first time I would hear Dad talk about his childhood and family life in New Orleans as a mature woman. (We never listen as children, do we?) I was spellbound. This may have been where my passion for family history got its start. Those interviews were done about 20 years ago, I believe.
I remember that this experience occurred after Dad had lost his sight, so there were long periods where he talked (not being aware of the cameras and microphones) uninterrupted -- into a profound silence. The listening was intense; even my own. I have in my possession those treasured tapes that I need to go back and watch one day soon.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that the research was finally completed and put online in the hope that Charbonnet family members from far and wide would find it and contribute to our story over time. I'd envisioned that we would begin the in-gathering process that would bring the 13-14 generations together over the years and miles of separation. (Link to Charbonnet Pages is located above the archives on the left side of this screen.)
It happened. Cousins popped up from everywhere; many scattered by Katrina and some still in New Orleans living in the painful aftermath. I learned of an anticipated family reunion planned for spring of 2009, and had a visit from a young cousin from Washington, D.C., who is bringing all that together. She plans to return in March to complete her interviews.
Then, only two days ago I received a sad note from a cousin announcing that -- in the bordering city of Pinole (only two miles from my home) -- there had been the death of a family member I've never met . The only information was that she'd died over New Year's weekend and that her family would be coming from Southern California for the funeral services to be held on Friday (1/11). "I'll let you know more when I can, Betty," says Gail. How ironic that it would be the death of this young cousin whom I'd never met that would bring me together with the Southern California branch of the family, whom I've also never met. And, of course, I'll take the morning off to attend.
Then today: A member of city staff whose desk is about 50 feet from my own stopped by my cubby today to ask if I planned to attend the memorial service on Friday for a well known member of the arts community; the woman who had created the annual "The Art of Living Black" exhibition held during Black History Month each year. Something clicked. Could this be? I had no name to go by; nothing but this amorphous "...an unmet cousin who lived in Pinole had died," yet ... .
Can you imagine? This turned out to be Rae Louise Hayward, celebrated artist and former member of the Richmond Arts Center board. Over the years I'd served on the city's Arts Commission and attended many AOLB openings. We'd lived within a stone's throw for at least the past ten years. We've undoubtedly been in the same room many times -- never aware of our biological connections.
Rae Louise Hayward was the granddaughter of my father's eldest brother, Joseph Charbonnet. A few minutes ago I watched two short DVDs on YouTube.com -- both interviews with Rae. Yes, she looks very familiar. How sad that we remained strangers; but how incredible that it will be her death that brings together members of her extended family who might never have bridged the divide except for her passing.
I'm having such mixed feelings of joy and profound sadness for what might have been.
See YouTube.com -- TAOLB: Rae Louise Hayward - 1st Inspiration
TAOLB: 2007 Artist Talk, Rae Louise Hayward