Cleaning out a basement closet today, I find, stuffed in a box of old sermons and random papers, a twenty-year-old photocopy of an obituary for Robert Foster Anderson. There’s a grainy picture of a man in a white cap. He looks like my Dad, but I never met him. The obit said he had a son and a daughter—my cousins—but I never met them either because my father was estranged from his brother Bob.
Growing up, I knew all my aunts, uncles and cousins on Mother’s side, but almost none one on my father’s. Sometimes we’d visit Dad’s older brother Van out near Rapid City, where my father’s parents lived. But the other two brothers, Don and Bob, were almost never mentioned. As a child, I just accepted that Dad and his brothers “weren’t close,” but when Dad had to bring his ailing father to live with us—where he stayed until his death—his brothers accused him of taking their father’s money. That’s when “not close” became bitter estrangement.
My father had sent me this obit, along with a photocopy of a letter written from Bob’s widow to one of my father’s nieces, which she sent on to him. That’s how Dad found out about his own brother’s death. I know he was sad, grieved to lose a little brother who was already lost to him.
I remember Mother telling us, late in life, that when they went to visit my sister in Arizona, she and my father drove to Bob’s home one winter day and knocked on the door. His wife came to tell them that Bob did not want to see them. They got back in their car and left.
The bonds of family are indissoluble, and the blood line cannot be broken. So when it is, the pain is mixed with guilt for violating some primordial human law. I know that’s how my father felt—that he had failed in some way. Bob was a good man, too. Named Citizen of the Year in 1994, the obit notes. Had a park named after him. Like my father, Bob also knew the pain, the guilt, even if he could not get up from his stuffed chair and come to the door, bury the hatchet.
Now that both brothers are laid to rest, and I am reading my unknown uncle’s obituary, sitting on the basement floor, all I can do is pray. Lord have mercy.