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 (Ancestry.com). 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?"