After being orphaned before he became a teenager, all Thomas Cain had left of his parents was fading memories. And as he reached his 80s, there didn’t seem to be much hope that would ever change. But his granddaughter knew exactly what he needed. And for his 82nd birthday, she gave him a gift that he had thought he would never see.
Life growing up in Bladenboro, North Carolina, couldn’t have been easy for Cain. By all accounts, Bladenboro is a small town, and even in 2010 it would only count a population of 1,750 people. And it was in this dot on the map that Cain suffered the loss of his parents at a young age.
Born in 1931, Cain lost his father, Henry Cathey Cain when he was only nine years old. That must have come as a big blow to the whole family, not least for his mom, who was left to raise her young boy on her own. But that wouldn’t be the end of young Cain’s heartbreak.
Just a few years later, Cain’s mom, Ora Mae Blackmon contracted pneumonia. Since this was in the early 1940s, treatments for any sicknesses weren’t as widely available or as advanced as they are today. As a consequence, Blackmon succumbed to complications arising from her illness.
Cain’s mother passed away in 1943, which was likely traumatizing for Cain, who was still just a child, and had yet to even turn 13 years old. What was to become of the adolescent Cain now that he had lost both parents?
It’s not clear who raised Cain after his mother had passed away. But it’s perhaps an outcome losing her and his father that he developed a strong sense of the value of family. And it seems that that love of family has passed down the generations.
Indeed, Cain’s granddaughter was more than willing to express the sentiment. “I love this man so much!” Ferrell wrote on a Facebook post in June 2013. That post contains a video filmed around the time of her beloved grandfather’s 82nd birthday. And as it turns out, Ferrell had a very special gift for Cain that year.
Considering when his parents passed, it’s unlikely that very many photographs of them even existed. As a matter of fact, Cain had certainly never seen any. Now that he was an octogenarian, all he had left were fading memories of their faces.
In 2011 Ferrell had taken on the challenge of finding a photo of Cain’s mom and dad. “Everyone says that my grandpa is the greatest guy in the world. He loves family,” she told Today in April 2015. “I’ve always known that he’s wanted [a photo of his parents] so I just kind of started looking.”
Ferrell’s search began online with the genealogy website ancestry.com. And straight away, it led her to many photos of family members. Aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents… almost everyone showed up in her search. But there was nothing of her great-grandparents.
Cain’s granddaughter took another approach. She contacted a newspaper, The Bladen Journal, local to where her grandfather had grown up. Consequently, it ran a story in the hopes that it might trigger someone’s memory if there happened to be any old pictures tucked away and forgotten in the attic.
Ferrell had some response from the article, but ultimately there was nothing solid to follow up on. Then as life went on, for whatever reason the quest didn’t seem so urgent. As she told Today, “I didn’t give up, but I didn’t pursue it as hard after a while.”
But then all of a sudden a woman contacted Ferrell out of the blue having heard about what she was doing. She claimed to be the owner of a picture of the very woman Ferrell had been looking for – her great-grandmother. The woman said that it had been given to her by a distant family member, who had relocated to Florida.
Then when Ferrell saw the photograph for the first time, any doubts she may have had that it really was her great-grandmother soon disappeared. That’s because the woman in the picture really did look like she belonged in the family. She was convinced that this was the photo she had been looking for.
“I immediately knew who it was,” Ferrell told Today. “[My grandfather] looks exactly like her; I can see the facial features of him and my mom – his daughter. I just was flabbergasted. I could not wait to give this to him.” And it wouldn’t be long before she had the perfect opportunity.
It was June 6, 2013, shortly after Cain’s birthday and right before Father’s Day. There was a family gathering to celebrate and attendees included Ferrell, her mom Joyce Ferrell (who is Cain’s eldest daughter), her aunt Sandy and Cain’s wife, the “equally amazing and beautiful” Margaret.
In a video Ferrell posted of the moment, viewers can see Cain grab a present from a colorful, oversize gift bag. The gift is wrapped in bright green tissue paper. In fact, the paper is so bright it prompts his wife to say, “Green paper; you can see that at night,” as Cain gently unwraps it.
“You can rip it, pawpaw; it ain’t too fragile,” Ferrell says from behind the camera. Cain tears the paper off and looks at the photo. “That’s your mama,” Ferrell’s mom chimes in. It was a face he hadn’t seen in 70 years, and as he realizes who’s looking back at him from the picture frame, his emotions kick in.
As Farrell described on YouTube in June 2013, “In 2011 I began my search to find a photo of my grandpa’s parents. Both his father and mother died before he was 13 and no one in our family had ever seen a photo, including grandpa. All he had left was a memory that slowly faded over time.”
“So, it had been 70 years since my pawpaw saw his mother’s face… until this day in 2013,” Ferrell further described. “I am still on the hunt for a photo of his father, who he hasn’t seen in now 75 years (as of 2015), but this was a wonderful start.” The search for a picture of Henry Cathey Cain continues.