Alone no more

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Barbara and Jerome Cox, Reda and Perry Alexander and Mike and Jerilynn Amos gather around Fern Sowder for a photo during a visit with her this past weekend. Fern and Jerome were long-lost half-siblings, who met for the first time in 1994.

Fern Sowder, soon to be 90, always wanted a brother or a sister.

She was raised in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, by a single mother after her father abandoned them before she was born. While her mother was pregnant, she went to take care of her parents, who were ill, after being warned by her husband, Charles Cox, to make sure she was back by a certain date. When she returned after that date, her husband was gone.

Ten years later, Jerome Cox, now 80, was born in Hawaii.

His mother had married a serviceman stationed there, but who was listed as having worked for the local electric company for a single week.

“My dad married my mom while still married to her mom,” Jerome said, gesturing to Fern as they sat together in the family room of The Crossing in Salem, where she lives. “I found out from her that she was 16 when her dad divorced her mom and being that she’s 10 years older than me, I’m illegal!” he said laughing. “He was over there in the service and at the time, in the 1930s, the servicemen weren’t supposed to marry the local girls. When I looked at the marriage certificate, he worked for Hawaiian Electric for one week. There was nothing said about him being in the service. At the bottom, it was signed by my grandma’s brother, who worked for Hawaiian Electric.”

His father didn’t stay with him, either, abandoning Jerome and his mother when he was very young, but returning when he was 4 and telling him he would come back for him one day. His father left him with photographs of his family back in the continental United States, which he’s held onto all these years. Jerome’s mother contracted leprosy when he was 2 and was sent to a leper colony on Molokai, leaving him to the care of his grandmother. When his mother died when he was 9, Jerome said he was angry.

“I got mad when Mom died,” he said. “She left me on this earth all by myself. I couldn’t even go to the funeral because I was too young and she was at the leper colony. I couldn’t wait until I was 16 so I could see my mom.”

He had aunts who wanted to adopt him, but his grandparents wouldn’t let them, convinced his father would one day return. That day never came.

Charles would go on to officially divorce Fern’s mother, arriving with his new girlfriend in the car to Fern and her mother’s home when Fern was a teenager to request a divorce. He went on to work as an electrician in Detroit, raising two stepsons with his new wife. He died in Florida in 1985.
 

‘Do you know you have a sister?’
The years went on and Jerome wondered. He loved his family in Hawaii, but the photographs he had proved he had family elsewhere, too. What if he had brothers or sisters? What if he wasn’t all alone?

He began his search. He knew his father’s name and went through military records and genealogical records kept by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was tricky because while Charles Cox was from Kentucky, his mother had given birth to him just over the border in Tennessee, so after he finally tracked down the right Charles Cox, Jerome began searching in Tennessee before going elsewhere.

“I went all over, trying to hunt him down,” said Jerome. “… I found the family name in the Mormon records. Me and my daughter and my son figured out that they were from Livingston, Kentucky, so we drove down to Livingston, trying to hunt the family down.”

He said they stopped by the side of the road and asked a man if he knew the Cox family.

“He said, ‘No, but if you go around back there, you’ll find a man who’s the mayor of Livingston,’” Jerome said.

So off they went, a photo of his father in hand, and showed it to the man.

“We asked if he knew this man in the picture and he said, ‘Yes, that’s Charles Cox!’”

He also knew a relative of Charles’s who lived not far away. That relative met with Jerome, who asked, “Do you know you have a sister?”

“When we were kids, she told us she always wished she had a brother or a sister growing up,” said Fern’s daughter, Reda Alexander. “Then, in 1994, my sister-in-law calls and says, ‘You’d better sit down, Fern, I’ve got some news for you.’ She thought someone had died. She said, ‘You have a brother,’ and Mother said, ‘What? I’ve got a brother?’ She was so thrilled!”
 

‘Dying to meet’
“That’s how I found my family,” Jerome said, looking over at his half-sister, Fern, sitting next to him at The Crossing. They’re surrounded by family — Jerome’s wife of 54 years, Barbara, and daughter and son-in-law, Jerilynn and Michael Amos, came with him and they were joined by Fern’s son, Randall Cox and Reda and Perry Alexander, all seated together in the family room of the facility.

That first relative passed on Fern’s contact information and, finally, in 1994, the siblings met for the first time.

“I was surprised,” said Jerome. “I thought I was the only one.”

“And Mother thought she was the only one,” said Reda.

Despite her ex-husband’s perfidy, Fern’s mother made sure Fern still knew the Cox side of the family, so she was the gateway to even more family members.

“Her mother was the kind of woman who, had she known Jerome existed, would have taken him in,” said Reda. “That’s the way she was.”

“That’s what Uncle Ernest said,” Jerome said. “He told me if he’d known I was out there, he would have come and got me … When my dad came back here, he couldn’t tell anyone he’d been married to my mother because he was still married to her mother here. That’s why no one knew about me. All the family didn’t know.”

When he made that first successful visit, he brought with him the photographs his father had given him when he was a small child to show these new members of his family.

“They were all crying because they had the same pictures I had … I was so surprised,” said Jerome. “I was dying to meet her. She was sitting on her porch, dying to meet me, waiting for me to show up, here in Salem, of all places.”

Fern came to Salem in 1955 when she and her husband, Howard Sowder, moved here with their four children for work at Smith Cabinet Company. Two more children and nearly 40 years would follow before the siblings met.
 

Keeping tabs
Now, however, Fern and Jerome keep in touch as best as they can.

“Mother can’t stay by herself at home anymore,” said Reda. “She always remembers him, though, and asks about him. It’s always fun for her when he comes.”

“I spend most of my time in Hawaii and Seattle, so it’s hard for me to get to see her, but I came twice and brought the whole family, all the kids and all of us and we had a reunion … I find it hard to see her, being so far away.”

“There’s a distance, but they can still keep in touch,” said Reda.

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