Almost kissing cousins


WE HAD AN affinity from the first day.

Mary Corddry, who covered the Eastern Shore for The Sun, and I, who covered education, were drawn to each other from the day we met maybe 20 years ago. Both of us happily married, we would always gravitate to each other no matter where we met.

We still do.

At first we didn't get together often. In those days, she was trailing after watermen and waterwomen and watermelons, I after students, teachers and principals.

We were on opposite sides of the Bay Bridge. But we talked often by telephone. She was my landlady when I stayed at her house in Salisbury a decade ago while reporting for several weeks on a middle school in Princess Anne.

Whenever we were together, we would talk for hours about mutual interests, our families, our lives, our aspirations.

Perhaps our friendship blossomed because we had a mutual interest in Montana, my home state.

To my great joy, one of Mary's sons moved to the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana, and Mary visited him often. She took a keen interest in the Big Sky, once taking a backpacking trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, not far from where my grandfather, Fred Phillips, had homesteaded in 1914. He had run away from home in western North Carolina as a teen-ager and eventually had found himself in the Northwest.

I could not have been more pleased at Mary's Montana interest, and we continued to talk about the "last best place," now a popular tourist destination and summer home to the likes of Jane Fonda.

Mary, somewhat older than I -- I'm not at liberty to disclose how much older -- eventually retired from The Sun, and her husband died. She lived in Salisbury for a few years, but her yearning for her own home territory, Harford County, got the best of her.

She moved to the Harford home her father had built near Churchville, and our friendship changed from long-distance to short-distance.

She wrote two books, a history of Ocean City and a guide to museums on the Eastern Shore. As editor of this page, I published a story she wrote about visiting her family in North Carolina.

Three years ago, she and I camped in Montana and then traveled to the western side of the state for a reunion of the Phillips family that coincided with my 50th birthday.

Fred Phillips had died in his 90s, but his children and grandchildren -- my aunts and uncle and cousins -- were at the party in force.

Mary was greeted warmly, although some eyebrows were raised. Yes, there was that age difference, but what was a married man doing with a woman other than his wife in that tent on the west slope of the Rocky Mountains?

(Truth to tell, he had caught a terrible cold and had moved to the nearest motel, leaving Mary to fend for herself. That did not diminish her enjoyment. Mary has a zest for life that few possess. She's indifferent to what is expected of her as she ages.)

This summer, my wife and I were invited to a party given by Mary's children to celebrate a major birthday for Mary, a milestone that she greeted with insouciance. I wished that when I had celebrated my birthday in Montana, I had been able to face the future with as little care.

At the party this summer, I told Mary I was going to western North Carolina to look for my Phillips roots.

"My mother's from that area," she said. "Look for an Osborne on a headstone or in a church."

And so I went to Ashe County, N.C., found a Phillips relative who took my wife and me on a tour of the family church and homestead. High on a hill in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I found my roots in an abandoned family cemetery choked with wild roses and surrounded by a crop of -- Christmas trees.

And I discovered, in a coincidence that defies mathematical probability, that Mary and I are cousins! No wonder she fit in so well with the rest of those Phillipses. No wonder she and her family have always seemed like my family.

Mike Bowler, a former editor of Other Voices, is education editor of The Baltimore Sun.

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