Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Uncovering Secrets

When my husband and I were engaged, he was lamenting about the fact that he had only one cousin, the son of his mother's sister. He'd heard my stories of my family history and thought it was pretty special to have a knowledge of a large family such as ours was. He wished he knew more.

I'd been digging for information on my family for some time, as I still am.
At the time, we lived in an area where all of my family had been since the area was established in the 1600's, so it was easy to collect written materials and documents about my people. It was so exciting to me to discover that my grandfather was a part of one of the crews which caught the last right whale off of Amagansett in 1907. It thrilled me to know that my Great Grandmother's brother, Owen Chase, had written a detailed diary of the whaleship Essex (out of Nantucket) after he survived the attack by a white whale. Herman Melville borrowed the original documentation of the whale attack and used it as the base storyline for Moby Dick. Other less special stories were mine.

Mike knew of nothing. His parents had divorced when Mike was four years old, so all he knew was his mother's immediate family...one living aunt, and her son, grandparents, uncle and his wife, all deceased. He knew nothing of his father's side, and his Mom wouldn't talk about the relatives on that side. As a surprise for him, I looked up his surname on the internet, and discovered 13 listings in the phone books around the country. I immediately eliminated four of the listings, as they were his immediate family, his half-sister and himself. I took the remaining list and wrote letters to each one of them, hoping to find someone who was related and might have some of Mike's family information for us. I received a phone call one night, from a man in Texas. He was the first cousin of Mike's father. He told me he'd send what he knew, but would contact another first cousin, a woman, who had all the family history.

The morning of our wedding, I received a long letter from Betty, with copies of pages from Mike's great grandmother's Bible, listing family members, places and dates. She told us that there was a mystery concerning the arrival from England of GrGrandfather W. There was family lore that he'd arrived alone, at the age of 14, that he may have been a stowaway, that he'd had a wicked stepfather who beat him, who knows?
I'm still trying to unravel that, but with no success. It's been said to me that GrGrandfather never spoke of, nor heard from, anyone from his home country. Betty included photographs of family, faces and places unknown to us before. One of those photos was of GrGrandfather, taken
when he entered the United States. He looked far younger than 14 years old.

What joy it was for me to hold this special gift in my hands, and in my heart, until I could reveal the secret to Mike after our wedding festivities!
We rejoiced in the fact that he did, indeed, have other family around the country, and a history to be revealed in time.

Since then, I've kept digging...through questions asked of his mother's sister (who lived to be nearly 98 years old!), by wading through the scrawl of old census records, through books, on the internet, through inquiries to historical societies and libraries. I've found piles of information on Mike's family lines and photos too. What he thought he didn't have, he's discovering he has and always had!

Still, as delighted as he is to know of all these people and some of their stories, there is a sadness, too. Until the day she died in 2007, Mike's mother would never speak of his father or the family he came from. She had no idea that we were searching for that side of the family, as it would have upset her. She had no idea that we'd discovered that Mike would have had a chance to meet his greatgrandfather, his grandparents and a half-brother, if she'd given him the information in time. As it is, all three died before Mike was eighteen years old.

Our family albums have grown to thick volumes. The scrapbooks contain photos of our ancestors, their stories, their work, their own families and their lives. There is much left, I'm sure, to discover, and so, I will continue to seek those sources who hold the keys to uncovering secrets of the past. Just as we have a goal to know where we are going, we owe it to ourselves...and to our children...to know from whence we came.