Charity Bird was half Lenape and half French. Born in New Jersey, she ultimately became a homesteader, moving to North Dakota with her husband, James. Eventually, they would have six children before Charity died in childbirth. The baby lived—a girl. James named her Charity.
Charity Bird is buried somewhere near their homestead. It’s a one church, one cemetery town which some call a ghost town. Armed with a fistful of clues, I intend to go there. I hope to find her.
Last year was the first time I had heard of Charity Bird, which seems odd. After all, I grew up on her son’s farm. He lived into his 90s, and I have clear memories of him as an old man. His name was Frank Holloway, and he was my great grandfather.
Frank had six children of his own: One son drowned at the age of 16. Two others moved off the farm, and I have no memories of them. The remaining three subdivided the farm amongst themselves, and eventually their children and grandchildren and now even a great grandchild. One of those three remaining children was my grandfather.
In a row of eight unassuming homes, I spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas of my youth. I played with my cousins. Smashed watermelons and ate them in the field with the hot, sticky juice running down our faces. My aunts and grandmother and great grandmother made candied apples and popcorn balls on Halloween. Their eight pairs of eyes watched my every move. No shenanigans went unnoticed.
In one of these eight homes lived my father’s sister, Aunt June. After her death, I stumbled upon a two-page letter in her desk about Charity Bird. My aunt and I were close. She named me her executor. But she had never mentioned Charity Bird.
I learned that James brought his six children back east after Charity’s death to be raised by his brother and his brother’s wife. Eventually, James returned to North Dakota.
I gave the letter to my son Ryan. He read it, looked up at me and said, “I’m going to North Dakota.”
A few weeks later, Ryan drove out, spent a couple of days, made some contacts, identified some leads. But ultimately, he didn’t find her grave. Next summer, I plan to resume the search.
Charity Bird is more than my family; Charity Bird is the missing link. She explains my obsession with France, my insatiable need to wander, Ryan’s itch to roam the American west. I want to stand over her grave and assure her that her gypsy spirit did not die on the plains of North Dakota.
This is also a long-winded way of saying that our time in Paris is drawing to a close. Life here has fallen into a rhythm, a beautiful and delicious dance.
But inside me lurks a piece of Charity Bird. Next April we’ll head home with something I haven’t purchased in seven years: a one-way ticket. Then I’m going in search of Charity Bird. But beyond that, I’m going in search of myself.