finding my mother: the red box

Photo by Anna Dangerfield

Photo by Anna Dangerfield

My mother died on May 29, 1928, six weeks after I was born in Wuhu, China. I had no siblings. My father, a missionary educator, never remarried. I do not remember him ever talking to me about her – not a single time.

I was often told that he took a squirming three-month-old me in one hand, my mother’s ashes in the other, back to Penfield, New York, to be buried in her family’s plot. For the next three years, back in Wuhu, I ruled my world. Everyone in it was at my command except the quiet, serious woman in an enormous photograph hanging over the fireplace in the tiny bungalow my parents had lived in since their marriage in June 1926. However, I remember her eyes always staring at me from that photograph. “Yes, that’s your mother,” I was told if someone saw me looking up at her. I knew other children had mothers, women who were always mumbling and chatting and hovering about. Mine was different. She never told me what to do or not to do. Boarding schools in China, college in the U.S., marriage to a Foreign Service officer, and living across the Middle East and Africa only distanced me more from her in memory and thought. That is until an “out-of-the-blue” happenstance in 2000.

My mother, Carolyn March Lanphear, had only one sibling – a sister named Christine – and she in turn had a great-granddaughter named Sara who tracked me down. Sara is a dedicated genealogist. When she was twelve, her parents took her to London where they tried to find the first home of Christine and Carolyn’s mother, my grandmother, a woman named Elizabeth Chapple. They had an address but the street names had changed, so Sara and her father had to search the archives in London for old street addresses. Sara was hooked. She never stopped discovering ancestors: through college, graduate school, work on Capitol Hill, and ever since. I now know my maternal grandmother’s maternal grandfather was a man named Michael Solly Shrewsbury, born in 1789 in Deal, Kent, England – and so much more about the family of a mother I never knew.

Sara was married on April 16, 2016, in Washington, D.C., and it seems that every living relative was there. Among the gathering of the clan was Susan Singer, one of Sara’s aunts, and keeper of “The Red Box,” a marvelous treasure that my mother had sent to her sister Christine and that Susan had inherited. Susan mailed it to me twelve days after the wedding.

Her email spelled it out: “I think the red box has been ‘waiting for you’ all these years. Now it is in the right place. … the items in the red box thrilled my mother as a child. They were precious treasures and rare artifacts. My mom was awed by her aunt who loved her work in China and was helping so many children. She gave my mom a sense of a greater world and a desire to reach out to people from distant places. My mom wouldn’t have known of any other woman who traveled the world in service to other human beings. She may have walked to school during the Depression with cardboard in her shoes to cover the holes, but her simple homemade dress was made of Chinese silk sent by Aunt Carolyn.”