Mother's 2 families finally will meet

August 17, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

More than 55 years ago, Isabel Jackson left her native El Paso, Texas, bound for a new life in Baltimore. Sometimes she would look at the pictures she brought with her, including one of her walking hand-in-hand with her daughter, but mostly, she didn't talk about the past.

This weekend, the girl in the photo, who is now 63, will arrive in Baltimore herself. She will meet the man her mother had married, see the East Baltimore house in which they lived and visit the graveyard in which her mother is buried.

And she will meet for the first time the four half-sisters with whom she shares a mother.

"It's just amazing," Frances Medina said by phone from El Paso, still sounding rather dazed by the discovery of her mother's second family.

It is an amazing story, one first told in the El Paso Times last week (a copy of which was e-mailed to me), and one that promises to get even more interesting this weekend when the two families meet and try to fill in the gaps in their separate, yet shared, history.

Medina's mother was a young, Mexican-American widow with two daughters when she met Avon Jackson, an African-American soldier stationed at nearby Fort Bliss. They fell in love and married across the border in Mexico, despite the objections of family members who were said to have opposed her relationship with a black man. When the Army sent Jackson to Germany, his wife moved to Baltimore to live with his family, leaving her two daughters in the care of her first husband's family in El Paso.

On Saturday, Frances, her sister, Gloria Villalobos, and several of their children and grandchildren are scheduled to arrive in Baltimore for a gathering -- a family union, rather than a reunion. While each of Isabel Jackson's two families knew a little bit about the other, it wasn't until this spring that they learned the complete story and arranged to meet.

Growing up in El Paso, Medina was told only that her mother moved to Baltimore; later, she would hear that her mother had two daughters with her husband.

"I'm not going to tell you everything was OK," she said of being abandoned by her mother. "It was hard."

Over the years, Medina remained curious about her mother, and one of her daughters traveled here about nine years ago to look through records for any trace of the grandmother she never knew. She was unsuccessful, but this April, Medina's son, Arturo, happened to come across a genealogy Web site that was offering a free, two-week trial. He plugged in some names, made some phone calls and was able to call his mother at work with the long-awaited news: "I found Grandma."

Or rather, her second family -- Isabel Jackson had died in 1983.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the news also was spreading through the Jackson family.

"One of my sisters called me and said, `We found Mom's people -- let me rephrase that -- they found us,'" Chavela Mason recalled. Soon, the two El Paso sisters and the four Baltimore sisters were catching up on a lifetime of separation.

"It's a miracle," Mason said. "She was a wonderful mother. She didn't talk much about [her past]. I knew all my dad's people, I wanted to know my mom's people."

She and Gloria Villalobos have bonded over the phone -- both are night owls and enjoy talking long past the time everyone else has fallen asleep. Gloria's son, Gabriel, is a truck driver, and arranged to meet Mason and other family members during a brief stop on a recent trip.

On Saturday, though, 12 of the El Paso relatives will arrive for a long weekend, some by bus, others by plane. Avon Jackson has rented a van to shuttle everyone around and has been planning a big cookout at his Northwest Baltimore home, Mason said.

They'll take their visitors to see the Inner Harbor and Washington, but most of the time will be devoted to family landmarks -- the East Baltimore home where the Jacksons lived for about 30 years, the nearby St. Francis Academy where Isabel used to like visiting with the nuns, the St. Jude Shrine downtown where she used to worship and the Woodlawn Cemetery where she is buried.

"This is going to stir up a lot of memories," Mason said. It'll be particularly emotional, she believes, for her family to see Frances Medina, who everyone says -- and pictures suggest -- looks very much like their mother.

"I'm overwhelmed with this," said Avon Jackson, who served 32 years in the Army. In the past, he said, he tried unsuccessfully to reach his wife's family in El Paso. He declined to delve much further into what he considers private terrain.

"We had a happy marriage," he said simply.

Medina is grateful for the opportunity to connect with her mother's second family, and has enjoyed getting to know her half-sisters, first by phone and soon in person.

"Really, what happened in the past, we can't do anything about," she said. "I hope they feel the same way my sister and I do, we're happy to have found them."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella

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