Wednesday, June 02, 2010

History by Fact, or by Faith?

Some musings on how we interpret history

I've had a lot on my mind lately, and not just the myriad of responsibilities and concerns that need to be inserted into daily life before genealogy, research, writing, and many other things that are the breath of creativity for me.

I'm troubled that it seems like the more I learn, the less I know.

The more knowledge an individual acquires, the more it is realized that we (humans) do not, and cannot, have all the answers. You have probably heard it before, that history is subjective. History is only as accurate as the interpretation of the person recording it.

What did my family have for dinner last Thursday? Mom may think it was meatloaf, and I sort of remember salmon caesar, but I'm not certain, and my husband insists that we went out to eat that night and had steaks. Who is correct? Who do you believe? If you can come up with a date-inscribed photograph of my family sitting around a table eating dinner last Thursday, then you might come close to the truth. Or, do you? Is your camera imprinting dates correctly?

When it comes to genealogy, like any history topic, you can bag all the dates and related facts you want, but they will not help you create an entirely realistic picture of anyone's life or environment. You cannot count on 100% accuracy. What happens if the facts are not what they appear to be?

A retired pastor once told me: "The past is gone, and the future is uncertain, so, you really only have today." It was an attempt to help me let go of past hurts. It worked to some degree, once I took the time to ponder what he meant and how it applied to my life.

Today, THIS MOMENT, is the only thing you can be entirely sure about.

Or, can you?

When I entered the eighth grade, I was suddenly captured by visions of all things futuristic: "Star Trek," science-fiction novels, sci-fi conventions and futuristic artwork. It all hit me like an atomic bomb, and I spent hours and hours in libraries looking for new reading material (yes, this was pre-internet, folks). Perhaps it was my youthful age, but the romance of "what could be" seemed the most important thing in the world. My curiosity was sparked to learn about physics, astronomy, and science in general, to seek any understanding of how things came to be and why they work the way they do.

So, the future is uncertain. But, is the past much more reliable?

As a mature adult, I discovered how alluring history can be, especially when the old memorization torture tactics of school day history classes were thrown out the window. History looks quite different when taken personally--I mean, REALLY personally. This is the reason why we become hooked on genealogy and family history, in seeking a connection to our origins. We need to know what history means to us both genetically and spiritually, in addition to wondering about the perpetual mystery of why we exist, and was it really the egg, or the chicken, that came first.

Oh, I just love Sherlock Holmes and his dogged collection and interpretation of evidence. Dr. Watson has just as important a part in in these classic sleuthing adventures, because he is the sounding board Holmes needs to help piece together his theories. We have all done it: researched the facts, found discrepancies, mulled it all over--either alone or with friends and family--and come to a "logical" conclusion. Even so, there are outcomes that cannot be logical, because there are simply not enough facts, and there never will be.

Case in point: did you see the recently aired History Channel documentary: "The Real Face of Jesus?" It knocked me out. I mean, it simply knocked me out. If you are unfamiliar with the story of the Shroud of Turin and the lengthy, ongoing investigation of whether or not it is the actual burial cloth that wrapped Jesus after his crucifiction, there is plenty of reading material available, online and otherwise. This program pulled together a thrilling investigation that utilized science in a attempt to prove history. I say: "attempt," because science, like everything else, is not infallable. That said, I believe that physics and mathematics prove that there is such a thing as universal truth.

To continue, this History Channel documentary shows the scientific and artistic methods used to create a 3-D representation of the image mysteriously recorded on the Shroud of Turin, whom many believe to be Jesus Christ. In the end, it is nothing short of fantastic how we can come to gaze upon a likeness of this man from so long ago. It is truly amazing by virtue of the modern scientific methods that enable such a venture, even if the image is of someone other than Jesus himself.

The entire point of this particular history-mystery is the lack of "evidence," and the sensitve, even volatile issues concerning the interpretation of whether the image is of Jesus or someone else, and how it came to be. While reading about the history of the Shroud of Turin, you may come to the conclusion, as do many others, that although there is not enough hard evidence to scientifically prove that the image on the shroud is that of Jesus, there is probably enough circumstantial evidence to prove it in a court of law.

History by faith? I don't necessarily mean religious faith. Which of the "facts" do you accept? What part of the story do you discount as factual? Unfortunately, this is one history-mystery where the solution will always be relinquished not to fact, but to personal opinion.

Conscientious genealogists and historians want to come as close to the truth as possible.

Assuming that we can never be 100% accurate in our reporting of history, the best we can do, then, is to be thoughtful and open-minded in our consideration of all "facts" presented to us. Sometimes, stories or memories do not mesh with each other, and then it is up to us to weigh the choices and determine what is likely the truth.

When I was very young, my grandfather's eyes looked sparkling blue, but my mother tells me they were blue-gray. Will I cling to my own early memory instead of accepting Mom's statement about her own father as truth? Probably not in this case, because her interpretation of the evidence as an adult would likely have been more accurate than mine as a young child.

You cannot even be entirely certain of a primary resource: a personal journal, for example. If I record my thoughts and impressions in a diary to leave them for generations to come, the only thing my descendants can really be certain of is that the writings will represent me, but they are not necessarily historical "truth." What if I choose to discuss a topic in a wishful-thinking mode, but this bent toward fantasy is unclear to the reader? What if I tell a little white lie out of not wanting to offend someone, or worse, spread a rumor about something I am not certain is true? What can a researcher trust, anyway?

How about sensitive issues concerning a person's character? A family member tells that your mutual ancestor could not join the U.S. Army during WWI due to an old injury, so he went to Canada to join up with the Canadian forces and participate in the Allied war effort. Another family member tells you that the ancestor crossed the border to Canada in order to avoid getting drafted by the U.S. Army, but was caught, and made to enlist in the Canadian forces. Whom do you believe? Whom do you want to believe? We must be very careful when considering disparate stories, because choosing the wrong one can ruin someone's credibility... or, your own.

Will we ever be able to check our interpretation of history against the experiences of those who lived it? Many a historian longs for the perverbial time machine in order to visit the past and re-live historical events firsthand. Don't we just wish we could cut to the chase and see what happened for ourselves?

When Professor Hawking talks time travel, I listen.

Stephen Hawking, a brilliant and eminent physicist of our time, admits he would be the first to want to travel back in time and visit Marilyn Monroe in her prime, but he also thinks that this could never be.

According to Hawking, who holds Sir Isaac Newton's chair as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in England, a one-way ticket to the future is entirely possible: all you need is something to get you traveling very, very fast.

Photo: Prof. Stephen Hawking in front of the clock that eats time, designed for Christi College at Cambridge. The clock represents the philosophy that "once a minute is gone you can't get it back." The grasshopper atop the clock is designed to "swallow" time as it passes.

But, he thinks time travel into the past is unlikely is because of the destructive nature of feedback. As sound enters a microphone, if too much sound reaches the speakers and travels back to the microphone, it goes around in a loop and gets louder each time, eventually destroying the sound system if no action is taken. Hawking theorizes that radiation within a wormhole, or other such potential time travel portal, would react much the same as sound. The resulting feedback would soon destroy any portal used in an attempt to go back in time.

I'm sorry if this scientific theory bursts your bubble, but it looks like we may all have to continue piecing history together for ourselves, since it seems history may not be able to speak to us directly.

I hope I have inspired you to see that truth does not necessarily lie within the "facts." Still, what is the answer to this dilemna? I, for one, will continue to view historical data with the proper respect, but also with a critical eye. After careful consideration, I may actually choose to discount collected data and accept parts of history on faith.

To quote Albert Einstein, another eminent scientist who helped us to make sense of time, the universe, and everything: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Good advice, Albert.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Duty, Fate, and Beauty

Regina Winje Strand

Duty, Fate, and Beauty:
A Norwegian-American Pioneer Legacy Remembered

(a repost from February 2008)

Timeline for Regina Winje Strand:

July 13, 1873
Born in Sparta Township, Chippewa CO., MN

Autumn 1874
Sent to live with paternal grandparents

Oct. 23, 1888
Wrote letter telling of uncle's death

Married Thomas E. Strand in Chippewa CO., MN

Jan. 15, 1899
Bore 6th child, Thomas R. Strand

Jan. 22, 1899
Death from "heart disease"

While studying data and details in genealogical research, we often come across statistics regarding pre-modern era populations and epidemic disease. Most of the time we do not have to think much beyond the statistics. In the days of our immigrant ancestors, epidemics and untreated health conditions were an inevitable part of life, and though much feared, were met with courage and acceptance. The early demise of children and young adults was common, and yet it cuts to the heart when one studies the past and finds personal evidence of just such heartbreak and loss. The story behind the short life of Regina Winje Strand touched me in just such a way.

Berthe Regine (Winje) Strand, 1873-1899.
 Photo ca. 1895, Chippewa County, Minnesota

"Regina" Winje was born during the heat of a plague-filled summer on July 12, 1873, on the prairie in Sparta Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota. The surrounding land had been claimed by the first homesteaders only a few years before, in 1868. She was the firstborn child of my great great grandmother, Thibertine (Johnson) and her second husband, Eric Larsen Winje, both immigrants from Norway. The summer of 1873 brought one of many severe locust infestations in the southwestern plains of Minnesota, and that year, it followed upon the heels of a devastating January blizzard. After catastrophic weather and other natural events, times were hard for local homesteaders and farmers, including Regina's family. Many homesteaders had to take out loans in order to survive, selling any extra cattle or livestock that they owned.

When Regina was about a year old, her brother Louis, was born, and Regina was sent to stay with her paternal grandparents in Sparta Township, Lars and Ragnild Winje. Perhaps the arrangement was never meant to be permanent, but in the end, it was, and the reason can only be surmised. While caring for her lovely little granddaughter, Ragnild Winje may have found a longtime need fulfilled in such a way that she found it difficult to return the child. Ragnild had given birth to two sons, but no daughters. In Norway, children were often placed where it was deemed most practical, so it was likely that Eric and Thibertine saw the gift of their daughter as a way to ensure company and help for her grandparents during their elder years. Fortunately, Sparta Township, where Lars and Ragnild Winje had their homestead, was only a few miles from Granite Falls Township, where Regina's parents lived. All family members saw each other frequently, and even attended the same Lutheran Church for several years, in spite of the alternate living arrangements for Regina.

Regina Winje, ca. 1883.

The earliest known photograph of Regina, taken in about 1883, shows a reserved young girl with a slightly sad, Mona-Lisa style loveliness and mystique. In spite of her youth, she seems to possess an inner acceptance of what life holds in store, a resignation almost. Wearing homespun clothing, there is unusual grace for a child of her age revealed in the hand she poses on the photography studio's velvet chaise.

At the age of 16, Regina revealed maturity of an adult level in a letter she wrote to a longtime friend of her father and her uncle, Ingebrigt Winje (translated from Norwegian). It is young Regina who must write for her grandparents and inform the family friend of her uncle's death:

          Mr. Doran Wessell

Good Friend,

I must now send you some lines as an answer to your letter to Ingebret Winje, since he can not.

Your childhood friend is dead! He died the 26th of May 1888. He was sick for 9 weeks this winter from arthritis but then he got a little better again, so much so that he could work, but then he became again lame in his right foot and had to in the end, be in bed and was so frightfully sick for 2 weeks that he lost his understanding right up until the last hour, his last hour he was however calm.

Here there were many people who followed him to the grave. If you come to Minnesota, then you must come to us. You shall be heartily welcome. We wish to get to talk with you, then you will have gotten to hear more about your friend that you thought you soon should get to see again, but it doesn’t always go as one imagines.

You are now most heartily greeted from Lars and his wife. I should write this letter for my grandfather and you must excuse me if it is bad, but it is so much for you to know that your friend is dead. I am the oldest daughter of Erik but I am living with my grandparents and I have been here since I was 1 year and have been raised together with Ingebret and no wonder that I have sorrow for he was always friendly and good toward me. I have also this summer lost 2 of my youngest sisters so that the sorrow becomes even greater. If you want to come here then you must get a ticket to Myers Station, Chippewa Co., Minnesota.

We live not so far from there. I must now end my poor writing with a greeting to you.

Regina E. [Eriksdatter] Winje [1]

The "youngest sisters" mentioned by Regina were Hattie Christine and Annie Jorgene, who died from diphtheria within days of their uncle, Ingebrigt Winje. Hattie was 5 years old, and Annie was just 2, when their deaths occurred. The young girls were living with Regina's parents in Duluth at the time, where Eric L. Winje worked first as an attorney, and later as a municipal court judge.

Within several months after the letter was written, Regina married Thomas Einersen Strand, who hailed from Soer Troendelag, Norway, like her father and grandparents. As the wedding photograph reveals, Regina was already expecting her first child by the time the marriage took place, which was not an uncommon occurrence in early Norwegian-American culture, as it had been in rural Norway. The only real shame involved was when a birth occurred without marriage beforehand.

Thomas and Regina Strand, 1889/90

Newlyweds Thomas and Regina Strand set up housekeeping on the homestead in Sparta Township where Regina had been living with her grandparents. Lars Winje, who was ill at that time, added his granddaughter to his will. Regina stood to inherit the Winje homestead when her grandmother, Ragnild, no longer needed it. Shortly after Thomas and Regina were married, Lars Winje died, and Thomas Strand began renting the land from his mother-in-law in order to farm and support his family.

Thomas and Regina had six children together, all of them sons, and all but one survived birth. Regina was only 25 years old when she bore their last child, on January 15, 1899. Thomas was most certainly proud of his growing family, and although it is doubtful he ever said it aloud, he must have felt that he had the most beautiful and graceful wife on the Chippewa prairie. Now, he also had five strapping sons to carry on his legacy: Elmer, Arthur, Theodore, Lambert, and the newborn, Thomas Raymond.[2]

But, as Regina so aptly states in her letter to Doran Wessell: ". . . it doesn't always go as one imagines." A week after giving birth, on January 22, Regina slipped into unconsciousness and died. Her husband, sons, and elderly grandmother were left in a state of shock. [3]

Regina's death certificate indicates “heart disease” as the cause of death, but her family understood the direct cause to be either a heart attack or a blood clot. It is likely that, as a child, she contracted a light case of diphtheria when her uncle suffered from it and died. Survivors of diphtheria often developed a weakened heart from the ravages of the disease, and after six pregnancies in rapid succession, Regina's physical reserves were severely depleted. Even after the immediate danger of an epidemic had passed, it was never certain what the lingering effects would be.

Regina was laid to rest at Saron Lutheran Cemetery, near the old Winje farm. Her headstone has an image of two hands clasping, along with the following engraving in Norwegian: [4]

Farvel [Farewell]
Berthine R. Strand
Dode [Died] Jan 22, 1899
Alder 25 Jahr, 6 M, 10 D [Aged 25 years, 6 months, and 10 days]

Saron Lutheran Church, Chippewa County, Minnesota, ca. 1915.  Minnesota Historical Society, Photographs Collection.  Location no. MC4.5 p11.  Negative no. 58207.  Photographer:  Louis Enstrom (1873-1947).

There were more than a few decisions for the family to make after Regina's sudden loss. Like most women, Regina, as wife, mother, and granddaughter, had been the glue holding the family together throughout the daily routines. Ragnild Winje, advancing in age, could not possibly take care of five energetic young boys alone, while her son-in-law, Thomas Strand, kept to the fields each day in order to continue farming and maintain their livelihood. As a strangely prophetic turnabout, the newborn, Thomas Raymond, was sent to live with his maternal grandparents, Eric and Thibertine Winje. It was they who had given the baby's mother, Regina, to her grandparents, Lars and Ragnild Winje, nearly 25 years earlier.

The Strand family on the old Winje farm in Sparta Township, Chippewa County, soon after Regina Strand’s death in 1899. An album lays opened on the table with a photo of a baby displayed (possibly the infant, Thomas Raymond Strand). Left to right: the three eldest Strand boys (Arthur, Elmer, Theodore), Thomas Strand (seated), Matilda (Tilda) Nelson, Ragnild Winje (seated), Lambert Strand, and two unidentified men- the one on the far right holding a Jack Russell terrier (possibly her brother, Edward Winje?).

Thomas Strand's duty to his family necessitated finding a housekeeper as quickly as possible. In local-born Matilda Nelson, he found a healthy young woman with the stamina necessary to chase four young boys about the farm, as well as take on most of the household duties that had previously been relegated to Regina. After several years of building a bond through daily routines together, Thomas and "Tilda" were married in 1902, and promptly began a family of their own, which eventually included eight children: Alvin, Stella, Noel, Gearda, Olaf, Gerhardt, Maude, and Margaret. Strand eventually became one of the best-known farmers in Sparta Township. He purchased the homestead outright from his mother-in-law, Ragnild Winje, and continued to care for her until she passed away. [5]

In looking over the brief details known about Regina's life, she was obviously a dutiful daughter who did her best to live up to her parents and grandparents expectations. She may have found a purpose and direction of her own by marrying young, hopefully finding love in addition, though she continued to serve her family above all else. Regina's beauty could have instead led her toward vanity and unrealistic expectations, but it is doubtful she ever considered taking advantage of her gift.

When fate called Regina in the prime of her young adulthood, she left a legacy of personal sacrifice and acceptance that continued to strengthen her husband and sons, as well as grandchildren, who faced the future without her help and guidance. Regina's story is similar to the lives of many American pioneer women who suffered day to day hardships without complaint, hoping only for increased opportunity and better lives for their children and descendants.

Photographs (except the image of Saron Lutheran Church) are from the Johnson and Winje family collections. All rights reserved.

[1] Letter, Regina Winje, Wegdahl, Chippewa County, Minnesota, to Doran Wessel, Seattle, WA, Oct. 23, 1888; In Regina's signature, the middle initial "E." stands for "Eriksdatter," her patronymic name; note the typically Norwegian self-depreciation in the last line: "I must now end my poor writing with a greeting to you."
[2] A sixth child died in childbirth: obituary for Regina (Mrs. Thos. Strand), Montevideo Leader, ? January 1899 (copy in the possession of the author).
[3] Death certificate for Berthe Regine Strand, January 22, 1899, Sparta Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota.
[4] Information from Regina Winje Strand's headstone acquired by the author's visit to Saron Lutheran Cemetery, Chippewa County, Minnesota, September 2002.
[5] A biography of Thomas E. Strand is included in: L. R. Moyer and O.G. Dale, joint editors. History of Chippewa and Lac qui Parle Counties, Minnesota. Indianapolis, Indiana: B.F. Bown & Company, Inc., 1916. Vol. II, pp.127-128.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Give Me a House on the Prairie

In 1886, at age 25, my great grandfather Ole Martin Johnson married and brought his 17-year-old bride, Malla, to live on the farm his parents had handed down to him. Located in Section 18 of Granite Falls Township 116-N, Chippewa County, Minnesota, the homestead was begun by Ole's parents, Baard and Thibertine Johnson in 1868. It bordered tree-lined Hawk Creek, a tributary of the Minnesota River.

The Johnsons, along with their six-year-old son, Ole, and four-year-old daughter, Ellen Julie (Julia), arrived in America in 1866 from Nord-Troendelag, Norway. They first stayed in Goodhue County, Minnesota for a couple of years before deciding to settle on newly available land along the Minnesota River to the west. In order to "prove up" his homestead, Baard Johnson built a two-room cabin on the property in Norwegian cotter style, with a decorative Scandinavian gable over the small entryway. I believe it is the same cabin that still stands on the property today, though the land has not been owned by family members since about 1901.

After Baard Johnson died in 1872, his widow, Bertina, remarried and began another family. It was soon after this marriage that a new and larger farmhouse was built on the property, but it was located farther from the creek and closer to the road. When Bertina and her second family moved to Duluth in eastern Minnesota so that her husband could pursue a career as an attorney, she offered the homestead to Ole, her eldest son, as his rightful inheritance.

The farmhouse Ole Johnson inherited, and probably helped build, had an L-shaped floor plan commonly used on the Midwestern prairie at that time. Downstairs was a kitchen with an entrance off a back porch, a parlor with tall windows to let in as much light as possible, a front porch, and a bedroom that drew some warmth from the kitchen. The upstairs consisted of two unheated bedrooms that could get quite chilly in winter. Ole Johnson's mother, Bertina, must have brought some of her children into the world in that back bedroom behind the kitchen, as would his wife, Malla (Larson), probably attended by her sister-in-lay, Julia (Johnson) Larson.

House on the Johnson farm in 1941.  Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County,
 Minnesota. (Photographer:  Doris Johnson)

The kitchen of any 19th century farmhouse was the hub from which family members and others constantly came and went between endless rounds of chores. Children and hired help lingered at the farm table as long as they dared, drawn by the comfort of the trusty black stove and compelling aromas of freshly baked bread, warm lefse and butter, or a simmering venison stew. At most hours of the day, Malla Johnson could be found there, busy with cooking and canning, washing, knitting and darning, churning, chatting, and preparing baths, as well as nurturing, while her husband, Ole, took care of the farm and farm buildings.

The photograph above was taken by my mother while she still lived in Minnesota. During the summer of 1941, a group of relatives went to visit the old homestead property. Years later, the old house was torn down because it was in a state of disrepair and had begun to be used as a "party house" by local youth.

I like to dream about owning one of the houses my great grandfather built, either this one, or the one he built some 35 years later, near the village of Leonard in Clearwater County, Minnesota. It is sad that more houses of this character and age have not been preserved for the sake of history.

I doubt that future generations will ever look at a house I've lived in and think quite the same nostalgic thoughts, for there was something very special about the first immigrant generations in America. Their homes were simple and functional, and their way of life, well, there was nothing cushy about it. My farming ancestors sweated for each gain and every meal on the table. Early American pioneers experienced a connection to land and community that we do not often find in modern times. They had an intense appreciation of the acreage they acquired to plow, sew, and reap, and to form as one willed. After the limited availability and nearly impossible prospects of land ownership in Norway, new life and opportunity in America was a dream come true for my great great grandparents.

If I were given a time machine, the first place I would want to visit would be the 1870s homestead on the southwest Minnesota prairie, where this house was built. Hand me an apron, tie back my hair, and sink me up to my elbows in flour on the rough hewn table by the cast iron stove. I'll try not to mind too much when my arms become solidly black and blue from chicken pecks while collecting eggs, just like Malla. In the spirit of my ancestors, I would carry out my days uncomplaining, knowing that my work and sacrifice would bring a universe of opportunities for my children, and their children. And, so it has. How lucky we are that we no longer have to work so hard in order to live, and yet, how we yearn for the straightforward, sincere toil of our ancestors, and their infinite hope.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Best Laid Genealogical Plans, Part III

In the longtime search for my birth father, information I eventually found among RootsWeb member family trees led me to a contact in Bryan County, Oklahoma. I decided to make the phone call as soon as possible, before I chickened out. I knew that if I thought about things too much, I would rationalize myself into a hole. I had to remind myself that the goal was to make contact with my birth father, and not to cringe and falter at the very edge of success.

I was not certain that the woman whose phone number I dialed that day in July 2009 was a relation, but in my gut, I knew absolutely that she was. When she answered the phone, I gave my name and mentioned that I was referred by the woman who had been researching the family for DAR status. She knew immediately who I meant. I said that I was also researching the family, and cautiously began to ask a few questions.

This woman in Bryan County, Oklahoma, whom I will call "Gem," had several brothers, it turned out. When I asked which of them had remained in the California Bay Area during the post World War II years, it narrowed the field significantly. I decided to take the leap, telling her: "I think I'm your niece." Much to my surprise, she didn't seem the least bit disturbed, and replied,"Oh yes, that would be 'JM.'" We continued to talk, and I asked if I could mail her some photographs for identification, which she agreed to.

A little over a week passed, and I made a second phone call to Oklahoma. Gem confirmed that the young man in the photograph with my mother was her older brother, JM. The man pictured with his wife and two children turned out to be JM's uncle, and not his brother... so much for hand-me-down information. No wonder I had such trouble equating the two brothers in census records... they were not brothers at all, and therefore, not part of the same nuclear family.

So, now I was speaking to my very own "Aunt Gem." What strange feelings I had as she told me about her family, including my paternal grandparents, who had been poor sharecroppers in the same location for many years. She told me of her older sister, who was lost to cancer, and of a younger brother who had also died within the past few years. He turned out to be the very same Georgia man whose obituary and tribute photo had haunted me on the internet. No wonder I had felt a connection, for he was my uncle.

Though Gem was warm and welcoming, she did not feel comfortable approaching her brother, JM, about me. Instead, she gave me his address and phone number in California, and encouraged me to call him myself. I could understand her position entirely, though it meant more agony preparing for a second phone call with uncertain outcome. JM, now in his early 80s and sick with diabetes, had been widowed a few years ago. He lives alone, but his son visits regularly to take care of things around the house and run errands. Now I knew that I also had a brother out there, and importantly, that I would not be upsetting anyone's wife or mother by making contact.

All those years I spent growing up in the Bay Area, JM had been reasonably close at hand, but invisible. My mother married when I was a little over a year old, and I was adopted by my new father soon after that; we had our own little family, and life went on. I asked Mom not too long ago if JM had ever seen me, and she was only aware of one time, when she allowed him to come visiting soon after I was born. After that, she did her best to sever all contact. It is one thing to cease all contact, but quite impossible to avoid the curiosity and yearnings of a child over a parent, no matter how old that child may grow to be, or how absent the parent may become.

I came to the realization that our genetic compositions have a powerful affect on personal perception. Flesh and blood is bonding in ways we cannot even touch with the conscious mind. A few years ago, I began corresponding with an older relative who was related to my maternal grandmother. My grandmother died when Mom was less than two years of age, and I hadn't much contact with that side of the family. Yet, when I finally met this calm, unassuming, and well-spoken woman and her middle-aged daughter for the first time, no words were needed. A feeling came over me that I already knew her; her body was like my body; her soul was like my soul; even the way she moved and talked felt electric to me... like something long lost that was now found. The obvious, but also the subliminal similarities of our shared genetics, hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. I will never forget that experience.

So, now I was left with a frightening task... of calling the man I knew to be, beyond a doubt, my genetic father. I could hardly believe my good fortune to have found him in time! But, what would I say to him? What would we talk about? What was his side of the story? Would he like me? Upon meeting him, would I feel the way I did when I met my grandmother's relative for the first time? Did he even want to hear from me?

I decided to send a letter first, partly to ease the burden on myself, but also to give JM some time to read and reread the letter before I attempted to talk to him. I took a lot of care in crafting that letter: not too mushy, not too urgent, not too expectant... but, with concern and just the right amount of interest expressed. At the end of the letter, I gave my contact information and said that I would wait a decent interval and then try to call him, but that he could call me first, if he preferred.

It wasn't as difficult to wait as I thought, because part of me dreaded having to make that phone call. I decided on the day, and then once again locked myself into the spare bedroom equipped with just my cell phone, a pad of paper, and a pen. As the ring tone began sounding, I realized with some measure of surprise that I was optimistic, and not afraid like when I made that first exploratory call to Aunt Gem.

The phone call was picked up, but it wasn't an older man's voice that greeted me. It was someone younger than JM: my brother, perhaps? I asked to speak with JM, and the younger man asked who was calling. "Chery," I said tentatively. "Who with?" he asked, as if I were a salesperson. Okay, I thought, he's going to make it extra tough on me. I quickly thought how best to put it so I wasn't letting the cat out of the bag. "I sent him a letter a few days ago," I said, and then I waited. I heard the man's voice in the background, directed to someone else. Suddenly, there was a soft, but final-sounding "click" at the other end. It took me a few seconds to realize that I had been hung up on.

Convicted, without a jury? How could this be? That evening, I did my best to not feel utterly devastated. Eventually, I reasoned that JM had not yet come to terms with this new situation and had obviously not told his son about me. JM had been caught in a compromised position when I happened to call at the wrong moment. It was totally understandable...

My husband then stepped in and tried to help, because he saw what an emotional dishrag I was becoming. While I was at work one day, he called JM and they had, as my husband put it, a very decent conversation. JM agreed to my sending another letter. My husband even went so far as to say that he liked JM.

An additional letter was mailed to California, this time with photographs. Another decent interval passed, and my husband called again to pave the way for me. Though the two of them had talked for a good half-hour the time before, this time JM simply greeted him with "Bye!" and promptly hung up on him. What was going on, we wondered?

Things got complicated at home for awhile for unrelated reasons, and then came the business of the holiday season. Several months passed before I learned that my husband had again made attempt to call JM. This time, it was JM's son who answered the phone. My husband gave his name, and then said, "I'm married to the half-sister you know nothing about." Hardly a moment passed before the dreaded click sounded again.

So, that's that, I thought, after learning of the most recent attempt. JM must have told his son, and now, they were apparently both avoiding contact with me. How does one deal with this kind of rejection? My one consolation is that it is not ultimately a personal rejection; how can it be, when they don't even know me?

I prayed the next morning, and the answer came that I should send a card. So, I did... one final act of reaching out to JM. I told him that I hoped he was doing alright. I explained why my husband had intervened, because I could not stand the thought of being hung up on again... because I care. I asked if he was nervous about my intentions, and tried to assure him that all I ever wanted was to meet him, and that it seemed he did not share any of my feelings. I said that if he changed his mind before it was too late, I would still be here. Finally, I told him, "God bless you."

So ended the search for my birth father. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the old saying goes, and my expectations were never unrealistic. Still, I was not quite prepared for being shut out entirely. On the bright side, I now know more than I'd ever hoped to about the paternal side of my family. Aunt Gem sent me a few up-to-date photographs. I also know something of my paternal heritage, of hard share cropping days during the Dust Bowl years, and of a family line stretching all the way back to the Isle of Skye, Scotland in the 16th century. If I choose, there is a lot more research to be done to explore my British heritage.

JM and my mother, sharing a happy moment in 1948

But, what I can't do is force open the heart of the person who is halfway responsible for my very life. I must accept that although this is a tragic loss of opportunity to me, it is perhaps something altogether different for JM. People have their own reasons for thinking and feeling the things that they do, and I can't easily put myself in his shoes. Time may heal, but, it never forgets, and that memory is forever etched within my DNA, and within that of my children, as it will be in their children, and so on.

In the meantime, the midnight oil continues to burn bright on the desktop of many a hopeful genealogist; the dawn eventually breaks on the horizon, and the cycle of life goes on...

The Best Laid Genealogical Plans, Part II

I was on a writing retreat at the Washington coast last June with a couple of good friends. We were sitting at a communal table, happily clicking away on our laptops, when one of them asked: "How's the search for your birth father going?" As fellow genealogy enthusiasts, my friends knew exactly how that long term void affected me emotionally. I replied something to the effect: "It's not going, I'm afraid." I had to admit, my sleuthing spirit was in a slippery slump.

Just before the retreat, I had gone "Googling" for my father's name once again and came up with a tribute website marking the death of a man in Georgia. His photograph haunted me. He didn't look familiar, but there was something about the look in his eye, and especially, the way he held his head. Did I sense a connection? Yet, there were some pieces of the puzzle that were not quite right: his age, and where he had lived for too many years, for a couple of things.

Through years of on again, off again efforts to gather facts from genealogy sources and glean details from my mother, I kept hitting a brick wall. The names I knew of did not bring up anything determinable in census records, or in birth or death records, for that matter. The surname I was investigating was not excessively common, but it was common enough that there was too much room for error. I was losing hope that I would find my father while he was still alive. Still, that weekend with my friends renewed my inspiration, and I came away with a determination to think the problem out anew. After all, I was a genealogist, wasn't I? Well, I was beginning to have my doubts.

The path my search took next convinced me how important it is to never make narrow assumptions in genealogy, or to take passed-down information completely on faith. Never!

I decided to stop searching for my father. Yes, I did! Instead, I began to focus on finding some of his relatives. In 1949, my mother had gone on a Fourth of July picnic with the young man who would later become my father (JM), and some of his relatives. There were several photographs taken that day, and among them was a photo of a man who, I was told, was JM's brother. The brother, his wife, and two young children posed together in a group, and my mother had written their names on the verso of the photograph.

I knew that my father and his family were most likely from Oklahoma. Some of them had left Oklahoma for military enlistment during World War II, staying in northern California after the war to work as migrant fruit pickers, among other jobs. I was uncertain of my father's actual birthplace, but searching records for Oklahoma and surrounding states was the only thing I could do. To top things, I would later find out that my father's real name was not exactly what I was told. I eventually had more success using his nickname.

It had been awhile since I had done any serious looking, so I tried again and used the names of the "brother" and his wife. There was a match among the burial records for Bryan County, Oklahoma, and two matches on family member trees on RootsWeb ( The birth dates for the deceased couple were about right, and the dates matched those associated with the same names in the RootsWeb family trees. I e-mailed the owners of the two family trees in question to see if I could glean any more details.

One of the family tree owners turned out to be doing extensive research on the family line to prove her eligibility for membership in DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). But, was it MY family line? Then, she typed the magic words: "I know a very nice lady in Bryan County, Oklahoma who has an older brother named 'JM.'"


After getting the nice lady's phone number in Oklahoma, I waited for an opportune afternoon and came home from work a little early. Sweating, and sick to my stomach with my nervous system on full alert, I locked myself inside the spare bedroom, picked up my cell phone and made the call. I bit down on my lip while considering my first words. How absurd would they sound to the person on the other end of the connection? Suddenly, a sweet, feminine voice with a lilting Oklahoma accent said: "Hello?"

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Best Laid Genealogical Plans...

...sometimes don't turn out the way you planned.

Last summer, I "discovered" my birth father. After nearly fifty years of wondering, I finally found him. The yearning to know, or know about, a birth parent is a familiar one. Although some of these quests culminate on a happy note, many go nowhere at all, or instead, render disappointment. I always thought the quest for my genetic paternal heritage would be the type that went nowhere. I had almost given up trying. Instead, the search has, remarkably, gone somewhere, but not in the direction I'd hoped.

Soon after my sister was born, when I was about seven or eight, my mother asked me to come into the living room. I observed her standing there, and sensed she was somewhat agitated. Mom then proceeded to tell me about my father, whom I will refer to as "JM." She was concerned that I would eventually hear about my origins through another relative if she did not tell me first. She ended with admonishing me to not say a word about it to anyone. I do not remember being shocked or upset at the news. I only remember listening intently and asking a few questions, and being left in a "hmm, isn't that interesting" frame of mind. But, I was a young child at the time, and a dutiful daughter at that. I never wanted to push against parental authority, so it wasn't until I was an adult that the need to know more burned in me.

A mere passion to know did not get me anywhere, however. As many women of her generation, my mother believes in "letting bygones be bygones." She carries a certain amount of embarrassment and hurt feelings regarding the outcome of the relationship, although she has always loved me with all of her heart. She chose to not marry JM when he proposed to her, and for her own good reasons. But, think of the stigma she faced in the 1950s as a single mother. I consider her a very brave woman for making the decision she did. She lived with an aunt at the time, and they traded babysitting duties and worked shifts at the cannery in order to make a go of things. They came from Minnesota farming stock, and one did what one had to do, without complaint. She has always been the most selfless, fairest, and loving mother, in spite of the guilt she has always carried deep inside.

Mom and me

There is a basic human need to know about our origins. Where did I come from? What traits do I share with my family and ancestors? What is my family history? It is something of a curse on those who are tenacious and will not accept no for an answer. Throughout my adult years, I periodically pressed my mother for answers, which was not often. I could not bear to bring up the ghosts of the past when it hurt, and even angered her, so much.

Still, I tried for years to make some headway into searching for my father and his family, but none of the information I had was detailed enough, or certain enough. It was not until I borrowed my mother's photograph albums for genealogical research on her family (with her full permission) that I rediscovered the photographs she had hurriedly shown me, so long ago. The precious few photographs were still there... she had not destroyed them!

How those photographs played into the genealogical find of a lifetime will be addressed in Part II of "The Best Laid Genealogical Plans."