That’s my Cousin Zoë," my mother always said, pointing her out with possessive pride. If I were lucky, she would repeat the old story for the nth time, starting with, "Zoë was not only the most beautiful woman in town but she was also kind, cheerful, smart, and funny. Everyone loved her. She sang wherever she went."
I grew up picturing Zoë as sort of a female Saint Francis with birds fluttering about her and meadow flowers springing up in her footprints and I envied my mother her perfect cousin.
She died young and tragically, of course, ensuring her an unsullied memory. If I pawed quickly enough through our pirate’s chest, I could find the panoramic pictures of Heppner and get my mother to tell me the rest of the story. In "Before the Flood" she’d point out tiny Willow Creek flowing through town and past Zoë’s house. "After the Flood" spoke for itself: the town’s center is reamed out, with houses, hotels, and stores scattered on the banks or gone entirely.
"Zoë’s house floated away and broke apart," my mother would say. "Robert Hynd, her husband, got home too late either to save his wife and children or to die with them." From her voice I learned that dying together was preferable to surviving alone.
"What did he do?" I’d ask.
"Oh, he was devastated," my mother would assure me. "He wanted nothing more to do with Heppner and moved to Portland. Eventually he married again and had another family."
"How awful!" I’d say. Survival was bad enough. How dare he be happy too? But my mother would soothe my indignation.
"On his deathbed," she’d tell me, "he told his sobbing wife ‘don’t grieve, my dear; I’m happy. I’m going to be with Zoë and the babies again’." Somehow that made it all right.
Thus I learned many of my family stories, in moments snatched from whatever chores had sent us to the basement or attic. In later years I began un-learning them. It started, once again, with pictures. I’d inherited Aunt Mabel’s collection in which were many pictures identical to ours but also many different ones. The most important – and heart-breaking – difference was that her pictures were neatly labeled with names and dates. A short, stocky un-prepossessing young woman with a mass of kinky, honey-colored curls was labeled, to my horror, "our beloved Mrs. Hynd."
Surely it’s a mistake, I prayed. It must be Zoë’s mother-in-law. But no, I soon found a photo of a young man labeled "Zoë’s brother Bert" and damned if it didn’t look just like "our beloved Mrs. Hynd" with the same kinky hair and stocky build. There was no way I could make this woman into the lovely creature in my great-grandmother’s garden. I felt more devastated than Robert Hynd – his Zoë had just died; mine had never existed.
That was the worst blow. I got another, lesser one when my mother and I drove to Heppner to meet with her cousin Elaine (Uncle Bert’s daughter, Zoë’s niece). We visited the cemetery, of course. Half the death dates on the headstones were June 14, 1903, the date of the Heppner Flood, nine years before my mother’s birth! Clearly, she had never walked in the path of flowers left by Zoë’s footsteps nor heard the birds harmonizing with her sweet voice. For some reason, this saddened me, as if the distance between Zoë and me had widened. It did, however, explain how Mother could have mis-identified the picture. I’ve wondered since how consciously she chose an identity for her lovely cousin. Did she tell herself it was true? Or did she do it for me, so I’d have an image suitable to the legend?
Since then I’ve moved back to the state of my ancestors. I see family names in phone books, local histories, and even on a bridge. Last week I Googled the Heppner Flood and got 31,800 entries, including a song about it. Some of the stories match my mother’s and some don’t. Zoë was born Izoriah, which isn’t romantic at all. My great-great-uncle George and his wife, Lily, rode their house downstream till it lodged safely on the bank. Why didn’t my mother ever tell me that story? I’ve forgiven Zoë for not being the doe-eyed beauty I thought she was and have even decided the kinky-haired chick was pretty cute. I’m not sure, though, that – if it ever comes to it — I’ll have the moral strength to check out the truth of any more family stories.
Valerie Cooley is living in Coos Bay, Oregon. When she’s not playing with her beautiful and brilliant young granddaughters, she paddles her kayak on the bay, watches birds, gardens, and contradances once a month