One of the cousins with whom I grew up died while experiencing a COPD attack a few weeks ago. His name was Bill Derry. He was 68 and a retired dispatcher for a trucking firm. I was able to return to my hometown of Mt. Vernon, Ill., for graveside services for him.
Bill’s mother, now deceased, and my mother, whose home is in an assisted living facility there, were sisters. They grew up on a farm in a family that included four sons and four daughters. All eight had married and done their part to help populate the earth with cousins. Today, Mother and her brother, Owen Richardson, are the only two living siblings. All the other aunts and uncles are dead, except for Owen’s wife, Shirley.
Many of the cousins are like me; they no longer live in the area where we grew up. Some came from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and other states to pay their respects to Bill. Increasingly, the only time several cousins — all of whom have their own children and some of whom also have grandchildren — see each other is at times like these.
At the service, Bill’s brother-in-law Brian Summers brought the message, and Bill’s older brother, Ron, a retired Boy Scout exec living in Texas, shared some family recollections. Bill had been a Vietnam veteran, so an old friend played “Taps” and fellow vets from the local American Legion post gave him full military honors.
Many of Bill’s friends and relatives learned for the first time that he had earned and received a Purple Heart while he served in Vietnam. He had chosen not to talk about his wartime experiences, so he had not talked about his Purple Heart to most people, including some of his siblings.
Bill’s passing — only the second among the cousins — was a reminder that we will likely be getting together more frequently in coming years for funerals for each other.
Uncle Owen and Aunt Shirley were present at the graveside service. Mother, who uses a walker and wheelchair after 17 years with Parkinson’s, was not able to navigate the cemetery grounds.
But imagine Mom’s delight when Bill’s brother and his family, Bill’s sisters Donna and Susan, and out-of-state cousins Gary (Arkansas) and Sharon (Oklahoma) dropped by her place for a visit after lunch because they did not want to leave town without seeing “Aunt Vera.” They posed for “selfies” and other photos with Mom as remembrances of being with her.
Family reunions of the Richardsons and their families used to be commonplace. For obvious reasons, perhaps, these gatherings have become rare. No one knows when the next will be, or who might no longer be around for the next one.
My siblings and I were grateful for the serendipitous visit by Mom’s nieces and nephews. After they had dispersed, Mother remarked, “I’ll be able to talk about this with the others [in her facility] for days!”
All of us could see how much this experience meant to Mom, a true survivor considering her years of battling Parkinson’s. She relished all the hugging and the picture taking as she basked in “family.”