Saturday, February 15, 2014

Once Lost: A Story of Reunion

All our friends know my husband's name is Robert Courtenay Cook. What most don't know is that's not the name he was given at birth. His given name was Arthur Courtenay Robinson, but from the beginning he'd been called Robbie.

The marriage between Rob's mother, Flavie, and his father, Arthur Clarence Robinson, did not survive. Who knows why, but Flavie described her ex-husband as 'Joe College,' meaning that he was irresponsible and, as I take it, fun-loving and not at all interested in home life, all its trappings, and 'settling down' as is generally expected with marriage.

Art was in the military, stationed in Japan in 1953, when Flavie took Rob there with her to make a last attempt to save the marriage. No doubt, after heated arguments and recriminations, it was unsuccessful.

Flavie took Rob to Tokyo to meet the Navy ship that would eventually transport them back to the Naval base at Mare Island, Vallejo, California. During one of the days leading to their departure, Flavie was with a friend at the Officer's Club when she saw a man sitting on a sofa, feet comfortably upon the coffee table, conversing with a couple other fellows. She asked her friend who he was and her friend offered to introduce them. What followed happened somewhat like this: 

"Colonel Cook, please allow me to introduce my dear friend, Flavie Robinson. Flavie, Colonel Howard Cook."

Colonel Cook looked up and casually replied with words similar to, "Nice to meet you."

Now, Flavie grew up in a rather formal atmosphere, having come from a prominent family in the West Indies, where certain responses and behaviors were not only expected but sacrosanct. She reached down, swept Colonel Cook's feet off the table and stated proudly, "A gentleman stands when addressing a lady!"

He was smitten.

They married in October 1955. 

A few months later, a letter was mailed to Art informing him of Howard Cook's intention to adopt his son. Legal paperwork likely ensued and Art Robinson chose to relinquish his parental rights. We have no clue why. We can only presume, however, that animosity may have played a part, the desire to be free of the burdens, financial and otherwise, of an unhappy marriage and all it encompassed. And so, without the benefit of that 20/20 vision called hindsight, little Arthur Courtenay 'Robbie' Robinson became Robert Courtenay Cook.

Although Rob never saw them again after about the age of 5, Flavie kept in touch with the Robinson family until Art remarried sometime around 1960. Rob believes his mother felt they'd somehow interfere with Art's new marriage and that it would be better to bow out. 

Fast forward 50-plus years.

Last summer, while we were in the middle of a cornfield in Kearney, Nebraska, Rob received an email from our daughter, Hayley, with an attachment. Hayley and her husband, Chris, live in our house and have authority to open our mail to determine its importance and to either forward it electronically, by mail, or shred. Chris happened to open a letter addressed to Rob and immediately gave it to Hayley telling her she needed to read it. Hayley was occupied nursing their son, Oliver, and told him she'd read it later. "No," he said, "I think you need to read it." "Later," she replied. "No," he repeated, "you need to read it now."

Rob read the letter attached to the email and couldn't believe what he was seeing. "I am looking for a Robert Courtenay Cook and his mother, Flavie Cook. I am wondering if you might, in fact, be him."

Around 1986 or 1987, Rob searched the social security records then available and found that one C.A. Robinson had died. Rob's mother couldn't remember if his father had been C.A. or A.C. Robinson and Rob assumed the social security listing was his father. After a long, interstate custody battle, Rob just wanted to let his biological father know that he had grandchildren.

Rob read the letter a few times. The shock needed to wane, the information processed, the idea that he had family who remembered him, thought of him and wanted to find and know him had to be absorbed; and, he had to come to terms with information contained in the letter which informed that it had not been his father found in the social security records after all, but his grandfather. His father died only two years before, in 2011—at age 91.

Rob waited until the following evening to call his first cousin, Lloyd 'Brad' Bradford, who is his Aunt Phyllis's son. It was an informative and congenial conversation. Rob learned that his Aunt Phyllis, to whom Flavie had felt close to and carried fond memories of, lived in Florida, and that Brad was at that moment visiting his mother. Rob had a delightful talk with Aunt Phyllis filling her in a bit about his mother's life—and death. And it was further determined, being that we would be spending the winter in Florida, that we would meet and have a bit of a reunion.

We parked The Beast at a funky, little campground in Weeki Wachee, Florida, whose owner is an artist. We had a lot of rain and were gone so much that I never got photos of his 'sculptures' or his 'castle' (aka hurricane shelter), or the outdoor laundry room.

We drove down to Largo the following day to his Aunt's home, where we met Aunt Phyllis, Brad, who came down from Lancaster, New Hampshire, Uncle Barney, and another cousin, Lisa Field, who came down from Canton, Maine. Also there, were Phyllis's brother-in-law John and his wife Shirley. We were welcomed with open arms and open hearts. Never a moment, not once, did either of us feel as though we were meeting strangers. It just felt as though it had been a long time since we'd last seen each other. 

We all talked and talked, giving and receiving stories and information to fill in a huge lifetime gap. I asked if Rob's father had ever regretted relinquishing his parental rights and the answer caused tears to spring to my eyes. Especially in his later years, every time the subject of his son came up, he would shed tears over the loss of his boy—his only child.

At one point, with the assistance of a friend, he sought information about Rob and to his dismay and utter regret, he came to the conclusion that Rob had died in Viet Nam. The family had urged him to do some further research but, no, he was convinced that the information his friend had found was accurate. There were four Robert Cooks who died in Viet Nam. None of them had a middle name that started with 'C.' 

It is lamentable that neither Rob nor his father ever searched even just a little more diligently to find each other—or to obtain definitive answers at the very least. Like father, like son?

Our second day, we met yet more family at Brad's sister's. Gayle welcomed us into her home where we met her son, John, daughter-in-law, Tara, and their four children, Zach, Wesley, Kaitlynn and Anthony. Sweet kids. Again, it felt familiar even though we were just getting to know one another.

We had a wonderful time and look forward to meeting even more family when we reach New England in the Fall.

Thank you, Brad, for reaching out and sending that letter. You struck gold and for that we will always be in your debt. And, also, thank you for your kindness and for orchestrating this reunion.

Thank you, Lisa, for taking the time off from work and getting yourself down to Florida for us. It wouldn't have been the same without you.

Thank you, Aunt Phyllis, for opening your arms to us and giving us a glimpse of Rob's long forgotten past. I can see why my mother-in-law loved you. And thank you for still being around. Period.

Thank you, Gayle, for opening your home and allowing us all a place to gather and have some fun. Thank you for the delicious chili dinner and for having lots of Moxie on hand!

It was truly wonderful getting to know all of you. We'll do it again. And we won't wait 61 years.


Art 'Rob' Robinson in the 1940s.

Art 'Rob' Robinson

Rob's grandparents Clarence and Jennie Robinson with Flavie and young Robbie.

Young Robbie at the Robinson's family camp. This photo triggered a memory of that boat for Rob.

Art 'Rob' Robinson not too long before his death, with his brother, Barney, and nephew, Brad Bradford.

Aunt Phyllis.

Aunt Phyllis, Uncle Barney, Lisa Field, and Shirley and John Bradford.

Rear: Gayle, Rob, Phyllis, Barney, Kaitlynn and Brad
Front: John (Gayle's son), Linda, Lisa, Tara holding Anthony, Zach and Wesley down front.

Brad and Rob. I love this photo.





7 comments:

  1. What a wonderful true story of a family that will never be apart again. Something about our reconnection, it was meant to be. Now at some point we need to connect with all of Rob and Linda's children, and grandchildren too to make the family complete!

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  2. Wow Mama! This is such a treasure. Love you all!

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  3. This is such a beautiful post, and I love the photos. Warm greetings from Montreal, Canada.

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  4. An amazing story and reunion. I'm so happy for you both. Next time we meet lets share some more genealogy.
    I'll be catching up with our blog pretty soon, still so much to do to be settled and focused.

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