April 19, 2011
The native oak trees are the last ones to leaf out here in Oklahoma. Millennia of experience with the vagaries of Oklahoma springtimes have taught the oaks to wait patiently to break their winter dormancy. Let the new hybrids and exotic imports take their chances with March: The old oaks know their tender young leaves will not be safe until April.
Except that one April when no one was safe.
Sixteen years ago today my friend Susan Jane Ferrell died in the Oklahoma City bombing. She was my first and best friend. Our parents were good friends in their newlywed days, so when I was born, followed a year later by Susie, it was natural that their friendship was passed down to their daughters.
My dad with Susie on the left and me on the right, Christmas shopping in downtown Oklahoma City around 1959. Susie's father, Don, took the photo.
When my younger twin sisters were born (one of them named after Susie’s mother), Susie noted that I had an excess of baby sisters — couldn’t she have one of them? At the time I would have gladly given her both! A couple of years later, Susie got her very own little sister, Cindy. So the five of us grew up together, more like cousins than just friends. When I was 3 or 4, my mother took me to get a new stuffed animal to replace my beloved kitty cat that had literally been loved to pieces. I chose a small teddy bear that I promptly christened Susie Teddy. (Susie Teddy slept with me every night of my childhood, followed me to college and is now retired to an antique trunk in my living room.) We went to each others birthday parties and slept over at each other’s houses. I liked Paul; Susie liked Ringo. (I knew no one else who liked Ringo — Susie was always something of a free thinker.) She taught me how to make wishes on stars. Her father was the only adult I knew who could wiggle his ears. My first and only fishing attempt was in the farm pond behind her house. One year our families went on vacation together to Colorado.
In Colorado, left to right: My sister Sally; me (note the charming eyewear); Susie; Susie's mother, Sally; my mother and father. Standing in front: Susie's sister Cindy and my sister Jenny. Susie's father was the photographer.
This gave our mothers, both of whom had a keen sense of history, the opportunity to cart home several large antiques tied to the luggage racks of our 1960s station wagons — including the aforementioned trunk. Susie and I attended different high schools; I was a band geek, and blonde, beautiful Susie was a cheerleader and dancer. I married young and began raising a family. Susie went to law school and became an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As adults we kept in touch through our parents but became busy with our own lives. It was only when Susie died, and the memories came flooding back of all the things we shared growing up, that I realized how entwined our roots really were and still are. Bonds that take place in childhood are unique and enduring, and are like no other relationships you’ll have in life.
Susie with her niece and nephew on Easter Sunday 1995, a few days before she died.
Susie was sweet and spirited and sparkling. She deserves to be remembered for how she lived, not for how she died. The creation of the Oklahoma City National Memorial insures that the 168 people who died in the Murrah Building on April 19, 1995 will be remembered and their lives celebrated.
So what does all this have to do with genealogy? Well, for me genealogy is more than just collecting names, dates and documents. It’s about telling the stories of people who can no longer tell them themselves. It’s about making people more than a name on a chart or an epitaph on a tombstone. When my mother died in 1987, just after the birth of my oldest daughter, Susie’s mother gave me the best gift I’ve ever received. It was a pink corduroy coat for my newborn daughter with a note attached. It read: “Remembering the time your mother and I made pink coats together for our little girls.” I learned then that a memory, although bittersweet, is the most precious gift you can give to someone who is grieving. When we remember their lives and tell their stories, Death no longer gets the final word.
So Susie, we remember. You are loved and missed but never, ever forgotten.
Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Nancy Shively of Skiatook, OK. Read all her posts at Family Tree University.