Myra “Sallie” Varrelman looks very much like you would envision the 92 year old, after hearing her British accent over the phone. Petite in build, wearing simple pearl earrings, a cozy lambswool-type sweater, her blue eyes a little cloudy, but still reflecting a youthful spirit despite what she’s been through.
Sallie’s story is of a young child separated from her father and country, who grew up never knowing her extended family. It is a journey that led to revealing experiences in the last four years - about relatives she never knew and surprising ties to the community where she settled, an ocean away from where she grew up.
Born in Durban, South Africa, her first profound memory was at age 4 when she became afflicted with undulant fever, an infectious disease contracted from contaminated cow’s milk. The incident prompted her father, a farmer, to work tirelessly building a dairy that would produce healthier milk.
Her next memory would be the following year when her mother would divorce her father and accept an offer to become the drummer of a band in Bournemouth, England. Not long after Sallie and her brother heard the news, their possessions were packed up and the three sailed to a country they’d never seen. It was in Bournemouth that Sallie spent the rest of her childhood. She and her brother were cared for in the home of a Dutch woman while her mother performed.
The children attended boarding school, and were separated from any extended family. Sallie remembers the feeling of not belonging. She wouldn’t see her father again until her 30s when she introduced him to her two children.
When she was 18, Sallie found work in London as a resident secretary for a nursery nurses association (highly-trained nannies.) She remained there for five years, and when her brother returned from the war, the two settled in Redding, England, where her mother had relocated. Sallie took a job at the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
At 23 years old, she had the opportunity to travel to Germany with a group of young women. As a result of that trip, she would change her first and, eventually, her last name. “The girls told me that I should change my name because ‘only mean girls were named Myra,’” Sallie smiled knowing that they meant well. “My mother would often call me Sallie, after the main character of a morning radio series she listened to. The woman would open the show saying, ‘Hello, I’m Sallie.’ So - I chose the name Sallie.”
With a desire to sharpen her German-speaking skills, she enlisted the help of a language teacher, and the two became fast friends. It was she who introduced Sallie to the man who would become her husband. “Funny,” Sallie said, “I’d seen him on the streets earlier that day in uniform.” Ferdinand Kappes “Kap” Varrelman was an agricultural engineer from Washington D.C., working with the Korean Emergency in England. A stroll around the town that evening made it clear to Sallie that he would be a permanent part of her future.
Kap went to New Orleans for a year to earn more money with the intention of returning and making Sallie his wife. Eighteen months later, he made good on his promise marrying Sallie and taking her back to New Orleans. “We first arrived in Gentilly,” Sallie reflected, “and we stopped at a K&B store to have some chicory coffee. When I looked out the window, I saw some palms and banana trees, reminiscent of South Africa, and it I felt like I was home again.”
Sallie recalled her time in New Orleans with a fondness. “I love being in Louisiana. The people are special; they take strangers in and they’re open-hearted,” she said. Her two daughters, Sallie and Linda, were born there. Kap worked at Tulane and she at JG Givens and the British Consulate. “Kap worked day and night, so I joined the International Club and I befriended a Latin-American group of women.”
When the couple heard that Australia was enlisting immigrants who were skilled workers, Sallie and Kap moved just outside of Brisbane to reconnect with her mother. They did well there, with Kap designing and developing a pineapple harvester.
After a year, they returned to Louisiana - this time to New Iberia, where Kap was hired by Diamond Crystal Salt Co. to work in the salt mines of Jefferson Island. Sallie collected a trove of friends wherever she worked: Trappey’s (Lafayette location), Iberia General, Gulf South Research Institute, the gift shop at Rip Van Winkle Gardens. One opportunity would lead to another. Before she became a U.S. Citizen, coworkers had already declared her an honorary Cajun.
In her volunteer work at St. Edward School, she developed the computer lab and still helps organize the school’s annual book fair. It was her involvement with HonorAir that Sallie said was her most rewarding work. “I scheduled flights for World War II veterans returning to Washington, D.C. to see the memorials built in their honor. We arranged 23 flights, and I was proud to have been a part of that.”
In 2015, Sallie’s daughter, and her husband traveled to Dublin, Ireland to visit their daughter. While there, young Sallie had the hotel concierge look into her mother’s family history. Not long after they returned to the states, the concierge called to say that she’d found a relative with roots tracing back to Louisiana. Margaret Sullivan was the mother of elder Sallie’s maternal grandfather. Genealogy records showed that Margaret’s family had many relatives who lived in Bayou Chene, outside of St. Martinville, and also in New Iberia.
Sallie also discovered that her great aunt and another relative were both buried in New Iberia, all the while she was living there. And, there were even deeper ties to a Manuel Garcia de Texada, a New Iberia family with deep roots, of Natchez.
The excitement of finding information about her family was paused in 2017, with the death of her beloved Kap. For her 90th birthday, Sallie traveled with her daughters and a son-in-law to the Connemara Region of Ireland to visit her paternal grandmother’s birthplace. While there, a trip to Kylemore Abbey led to tea with the Abbey’s mother superior who would end up being a connection to another lead.
About a month after returning home, they received word from the nun that three weeks after they’d left another woman, Margaret Orr, came to the Abbey inquiring about the same family. The elder Sallie and Margaret eventually shared contact information and discovered that they were first cousins- Sallie’s last remaining first cousin. The two skyped this past October and Margaret talked about family photos, keepsakes and documents that she’d like to share, since she has no children.
This December, Sallie, her daughters, and son-in-law will embark on another adventure visiting Margaret Orr in her hometown of Knysna, South Africa. Sallie is looking forward to her very first sleepover with any relative.
Given all of her trials and experiences, when asked what she thought to be the secret to living a happy life, Sallie pondered only a few seconds, but gave an answer that seemed to surprise even her. “Trust,” she says with a raise of her brows. It seemed like an odd word, but it made sense. All her life, Sallie trusted the doors that opened for her and followed where they lead. “It’s true,” she said, “all roads lead to where you should be in life.”
In a hardbound picture book given to Sallie as a keepsake from her trip to Ireland, there is a poem titled, “A Blessing for One Who Is Exhausted.” One line, in particular, best describes Sallie Varrelman, as it reads: “Learn to linger around someone of ease.”
For all that Sallie has been through in her life and in her efforts to desperately learn about the family members she never knew, hopefully she’s learned something equally important: that she is “someone of ease” well worth being around.