Cutting the Umbilical Cord

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2019 by Sara Etgen-Baker

Photo of the Grandad Stainbrook.

This is a true account of my thwarted attempt at cutting the umbilical cord with my family. My altered plans forever changed my perspective of family and awakened my understanding of the power of synchronicity.  

I awoke at dawn; packed my remaining personal items into a duffle bag; and slung it over my shoulder. I approached the front door, wrapping my hand around the bronze door knob, memorizing its patina, and twisting it until the weary front door opened. The seasons had taken their toll on it, baking it in summer and freezing it in winter. Now, the door’s once brilliant blue paint was brittle and faded in the sunlight. I closed my eyes, remembering how often I’d passed through this door and entered another chapter of my life: first day of kindergarten, Girl Scout investiture, first middle school dance, first date, and my first summer job. So many memories were here, and all of them balled up in my chest at once.

I snapped the door shut and heard the ghost of my childhood whimper as I turned to face the sharp autumn wind. Sure, I was grown up and enthusiastic about leaving home for the first time. Yet, I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that I’d not just miss the people I loved in this place, but I’d also miss the person I was in this place. However, I couldn’t stop—not now. I was committed to cutting the umbilical cord and distancing myself from family and the place I called home.

I turned the key in my car’s ignition, uneasiness stirring in the pit of my stomach, and backed out of the driveway bound for Muncie, Indiana, and my first post-college job. I cruised down the freeway gazing straight ahead, glimpsing only occasionally in my rearview mirror. One mile forward, one more, and then another. North Texas’ tree-covered hills slowly gave way to Oklahoma’s rocky mesas and Missouri’s heavily-forested Ozark mountains covered with trees clothed in crimson, gold, and brown. With each mile forward, everything familiar slipped further and further away. By mid-afternoon I arrived in Springfield, Missouri—the halfway point of my journey and the city where Granddad lived.

I pulled into his driveway and saw Granddad sitting in his front porch swing—the place we’d shared summer evenings together during my childhood visits. He waved, motioning me to join him. I sat down next to him on the swing, my eyes taking in its familiar peeled white coat and rough wooden seat.
What brings you my way?” Granddad asked.

“I’m going to Muncie, Indiana,” I answered, my breath quickening. “I’ve taken a job at Ball State University!”

“That’s great news! But,” a slight frown creased his forehead, “why Muncie? Why so far from home?”

“I uh…,” my voice faltered, and my mouth went dry. “I can’t really explain it to you. For some inexplicable reason I was drawn to Muncie. Besides, the distance lets me cut the umbilical cord with home and family and become independent.”

“Hmm.” A hint of irritation flashed across his face. “If you say so. You had dinner yet?”

“No sir.”

“Come inside. We’ll eat,” he replied in a deliberate tone of voice. I silently followed him into his kitchen where he warmed some leftovers. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you?” he asked as we sat down for dinner.

“Tell me what?”

“Before settling in Missouri, my father migrated from Pennsylvania to Muncie where he worked in the gas fields for Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing. Muncie was my boyhood home,” he declared, his blue eyes twinkling. “So in a way, you’re returning home.”

“WHAT?” My hand flew to my chest.

“Yes! And my brother still lives in the house where I grew up. You must see it!” He reached for his telephone.

“Granddad, wait! No!” But I couldn’t stop him.

“Hello, Claude. Bert here. Oh, me? Fine. You remember my granddaughter? She’s moving to Muncie. What’s that? Yes, I know. Such a coincidence! And she’ll be working at Ball State. Imagine that! What? Sure. She’d love to meet you and the family.” He smiled rather smugly. “I’ll give her your address.”

Granddad hung up the telephone. “Here.” He handed me a piece of paper with Claude’s address scribbled on it. “Claude and the family are eager to meet you.”

“But Granddad,” I stared at the piece of paper, “didn’t you hear me? I’m moving to Muncie to cut the umbilical cord with family not connect with it!”

“Yes, I heard you, darlin’,” he asserted. “But it seems to me that the Universe has its own agenda. You’ll learn soon enough that things don’t always go the way you intended. That’s just the way of the Universe.

“The way of the Universe? What are you talking about, Granddad?”

“The Universe is constantly orchestrating people, places, and events in seemingly random, unrelated directions. But nothing in the Universe is truly random. In fact, a great synchronicity is taking place. Relinquish your control,” he advised, “and accept that people, places, and events are in your life for a reason. It’s up to you to discover that reason.”

“Well, I know the reason why I left home, and it’s not to be with family!” I stuffed the piece of paper deep inside my jeans pocket and stormed off to bed, sleeping restlessly.

“Promise me you’ll visit Claude,” Granddad reiterated as he kissed me goodbye the next morning.”

“Oh, alright, Granddad! I promise,” the words all but choking me.

After arriving in Muncie, I drove to Claude’s house wishing with all my heart that I hadn’t promised Granddad I’d do so.

Welcome!” Claude exclaimed, opening his front door. “Come in!” He ushered me to an easy chair across from his fireplace. “I’m delighted to finally meet my great niece! I’m not much for words, but I’ve much to tell you about the family. I, uh…really don’t know where to begin,” he said, his voice trailing off. He handed me a large, cumbersome volume with the words Stainbrook Family History embossed on the cover. “This book tells our story from the beginning. I’ll leave you to it,” Claude said, disappearing from the room.

The book was old and heavy, bound in green leather. It was cracked and dry with age and smelt faintly of Claude’s pipe tobacco and dust. I eased back in the chair and propped my feet on a footstool, soaking in the warmth from his cheery fireplace and carefully fingering the gold lettering on the outside before opening the book. The pages rustled as I thumbed through its yellowed and fragile pages. Words and images appeared and disappeared as I devoured the pages, immersed in the story of Jacob Steinbruchel, the initial Stainbrook who came to the U.S. from Germany arriving in Philadelphia in 1747. He obtained his citizenship; bought land in Buck County, Pennsylvania; and married. Before Indians killed him in 1757, he bore three children—Maria, George, and Abraham, forever sealing their fate and the fortune of generations of Stainbrooks to follow as American citizens.

I paused before continuing and laid down the book, glancing at the richly carved mantel in front of me. It was filled with vintage family photos, many clouded with dust and age. I was attracted to a small oval portrait of a young woman. I stood up and stared at her photograph. Her gaze, undimmed by time, met mine, and I immediately felt a deep, enigmatic connection to her. The smile on her face comforted me, and I sensed her love for me—a love as real as if she were in the room with me.
“You have her strong cheek bones,” Claude interjected when he re-entered the room. “The resemblance is uncanny.”

Who is she?”

You never knew her. She’s your great-grandmother, Martha Elizabeth Stainbrook. She was your age when this photo was taken.”

But Claude was wrong. I’d known her face forever. I’d seen it long before I knew this photograph existed, for Martha’s features were the same ones I’d seen on both my mother’s and grandfather’s faces. At that moment, my perspective shifted as I recognized the Universe had, as Granddad suggested, orchestrated my move to Muncie but not for the reason I intended. I hadn’t come to Muncie to cut the umbilical cord with home and family. Rather, I’d been drawn to Muncie to strengthen my connection to family and bond with them in a much broader sense. Suddenly, I felt transformed, nourished, and imbued with a deeper fragrance of meaning and a heightened appreciation for synchronicity—the ever-present reality and invisible force that links the past, present, and future together.

For three years I lived and worked in Muncie, spending a great deal of time getting to know Uncle Claude and a host of other Stainbrook family members. I’m grateful for my time with them, for my life was richer for it. Before returning to Texas, Uncle Claude gave me the Stainbrook Family History book, inscribing these words on the title page: Sara, An indelible, timeless, connection exists between us. May you find strength and comfort in knowing you’re part of such a rich family history. Love, Uncle Claude. Over the years I have taken great pleasure in his words and the invisible bond with my family.

The book now sits on my bookshelf, reminding me of the magic of synchronicity and the inexplicable, mysterious connectedness I ofttimes experience with people, places, events, and the like. Granddad was right. There are no coincidences. Nothing happens by chance. The Universe works in its own way, and I’ve learned to surrender to It.

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