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Missing an Indiana cousin

It is bittersweet to be here in Indiana on this family Saturday.

The day of each week when The Legal Genealogist writes about personal family stories, instead of the stories of others.

Because it isn’t possible to be here in Indiana on this family Saturday without remembering being here, with family, five years ago.

And wishing I could do it again.

Five years ago, the National Genealogical Society conference was in Cincinnati. And when the conference ended, I headed over to the tiny town of Rising Sun, Indiana, population about 2300.

My goal: to meet my grandmother’s cousin, last of her generation.

Thelma in 1919

Thelma Rena (Livingston) Dibble was born on the 27th of June 1919 in Hollister, Oklahoma, to Leva Pyron Livingston and Ova (Winningham) Livingston. So, when I had the privilege of this visit with this amazing woman, she was nearly 93 years old.

And oh… the stories of those 93 years…

She never had a birthday party until she was an adult. Way too many meals were cornbread and milk. Dresses were made from flour sacks, and she owned exactly two at a time: one for school and one for church. Shoes were resoled as often as they could be to make them last.

Electricity didn’t make it out to the farm until long after she was married and had moved away, running water was an unheard-of luxury, and her prize possession was a kerosene lamp of cut glass that she could use to read by. She learned to drive at the age of 10, she substituted for a fourth grade teacher for an entire week when she was only a high school freshman herself, and the only thing she was ever truly afraid of — what she remained afraid of to the very end of her very long life — was the storms of spring.

The land where Thelma grew up in Oklahoma was flat — so flat that the family could see the marvel of electric lights in Electra, across the state line in Texas; only the curvature of the earth prevented them from seeing more. And so flat that nothing, literally nothing, stood between them and the storms of spring.

The stories she told are chilling: the storm cellar dug deep into the earth away from the house, with benches on one side and a small opening on the side away from the door so that if the door ended up covered by debris, they could escape through the opening. Sitting out on the porch on spring nights with her mother, watching the sky and listening for the telltale sounds of the wind. The time the tornado took the shed and the barn roof. The time the lightning brought down the chimney, sending bricks crashing down inches from her brothers’ heads as they slept. The ball of lightning rolling across the floor of her bedroom and hitting her with a jolt, leaving her stunned.

The time her second grade class was hurried across the street into her own grandmother’s storm cellar because there wasn’t enough room in the school shelters for all the children. The wet towels they had to use to breathe through as the dust rolled through town. Waking up in the morning with gritty dust on the chenille bedspreads and in everyone’s mouths. Wondering sometimes if they were going to wake up at all.

Thelma smiled when we spoke as she told me that she was determined not to marry a boy from Oklahoma. She wanted so badly to move away from the storms of spring. When she met Bill Dibble of Indiana, it was love at first sight, and storms — well, whoever heard of storms in Indiana, she thought.

And then came the day there in tiny Ohio County, Indiana, when she tucked her newborn daughter and herself into whatever cover she could find as the tornado took off the roof of her house. And then came the 3rd of April 1974 when massive tornadoes — one F4 and one F5 — ripped through the county, leaving 64 people injured.

She was, she told me, still afraid of the storms of spring. A sudden cloud cover, a greenish tint to the sky, a rumble of wind raised the hairs on her neck just as they did in Oklahoma all those years ago. But, she said, she was still very glad she didn’t fall for any of those Oklahoma boys. She had 47 years of a happy and fulfilling marriage to Bill (who died in 1996), and had two daughters, three granddaughters, three great grandchildren and generations of schoolchildren who still revere her even today in a town that adopted her as surely as if she’d been born there.

I would give so much to be able to sit with Thelma again, in Rising Sun, and to listen to the stories once again. To look again at the photos of years gone by. To go over again the census records of 1920 and 1930 and 1940.

Yes, it’s bittersweet to be here in Indiana this family Saturday.

Because I can’t do any of those things.

We lost Thelma in 2016.

The last of her generation.

The end of an era for my family.

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