A Family Divinely Connected Through Historical Photos

She had a special bond with her husband’s grandmother. After perusing some scrapbooks, she learned the reason why.

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Posted in , Mar 25, 2022

Photo credit: © JEFFREY S MCPHEETERS (WWW.JEFFMCPHEETERS.COM)

We were at my husband Jeff’s grandparents’ house for dinner. Spending time with them at their home near Kansas City, Missouri, was always a treat. From the first time meeting them, I’d felt at home with Jeff’s relatives. I was especially drawn to Grandmother Ruth. She was elegant and graceful, but at the same time so warm and inviting.

“Would you like to see some family scrapbooks?” Ruth asked when dinner was over.

“I’d love to!” I said. Jeff ’s grandfather walked over to some shelves beside the fireplace and took down a thick, leather-bound album I hadn’t seen before. Jeff and I hadn’t been married long, but his grandparents already knew how much I loved looking through their old photos.

Maybe I loved old photos so much because of my interest in my own family history. My mother, Neva, was born to an unmarried woman in 1926. At that time, having a baby out of wedlock was a scandal. Women who found themselves in such trouble had nowhere to go. But my biological grandmother was lucky; she found The Willows in Kansas City.

The Willows was started in 1905 by a couple named Cora and Edwin Haworth. They bought an elegant mansion and transformed it into a place where pregnant women got excellent medical care. Other people may have looked down on the expectant women, but at The Willows, they were treated with compassion and respect. From 1905 until the 1960s, the Haworths found homes for approximately 30,000 babies.

I never knew my biological grandmother’s name. The Willows kept all identities of the women secret. When she was 10 days old, my mother was adopted by Roy and Stella Crist. The Crists had lost four babies of their own—I’d seen the four graves my grandfather had dug himself. They came to The Willows looking for a child to love, and they chose my mother.

Turning the pages of Grandmother Ruth’s album, full of relatives of Jeff’s I didn’t know, I couldn’t help but think about how my own family had found each other. The Crists didn’t have a lot of money, but my mother always said she won the parental jackpot. As a child, she proudly told her classmates at school how her parents had chosen her. As an adult, on every birthday, she celebrated her birth mother’s courage. “How brave and selfless she was to allow me to be adopted by the most wonderful parents,” she told me one year. “I’ll always be thankful to her for it.”

Blood ties aren’t as important as love, I thought, studying the old black-and-white pictures in the album. Like what I was feeling now—I hadn’t known Grandmother Ruth long, but she somehow already felt like family.

I turned the page to a photo of a group of people, including a couple and their little girl, standing in front of a house. Not just a house—a mansion. A very familiar one. The Willows!

“My mother was born there!” I said. “Why do you have a picture of it?”

“Why, honey,” said Ruth. “Cora and Edwin Haworth—the founders of The Willows—were my parents. The little girl in the picture is me. Growing up, I helped take care of all the babies there.”

Jeff and I looked at one another in surprise. Neither of us had any idea our families were connected through The Willows.

Ruth thought a moment. “I must have bathed and rocked your very own mama after she was born!”

I imagined young Ruth with my mother in her arms, giving my mother her first memories of love and care. Welcoming her into the world the way she’d welcomed me into her home. No wonder Ruth felt like family to me. She was.

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