52 Ancestors Week 1 – Fresh Start

This week’s prompt is Fresh Start. This prompt made me think about when I had to make a fresh start researching my father’s family. I think many genealogists have had to make a fresh start with their research at some point. In my case, I learned a valuable lesson to not make assumptions, no matter how strong the circumstantial evidence!

     As I’ve mentioned before, my late father was adopted. When I started out in my research, I did not know much. I knew his birth name, first and last, which was huge! But other than that, all I had heard was that his birth mother was an unwed teenager. That’s it. When the 1940 census was released in 2012, I prepared for a long night of researching. Dad was born in 1950, so his mother would likely be on this census as I was fairly certain she was over the age of ten when he was born! 

     I settled in with coffee and Girl Scout cookies and searched page by page for families with his birth surname. Surprisingly, there were only two in Rhode Island. One was a husband and wife in their 70’s. The other was a family with 4 children. Two boys and two girls. In 1950 the boys would have been 28 and 26. The girls would have been 22 and 15. This must be my father’s family! However, my mother suggested that perhaps his mother was from another state and was only in RI to give birth and place the baby for adoption. Possible, but I didn’t think it likely. One of these 4 must be my father’s parent. Years later, one of the sons worked with my maternal grandfather and my mother went to school with his children. My mother said my father bore a strong resemblance to one of the sons that was in her class. I suspected they were either half brothers or first cousins, so naturally they would look alike.

     I really thought it must be one of the girls who was my father’s mother. Surely his birth surname must be the mother’s name since she was reportedly unmarried. The oldest gave birth to a son 4 months after my father was born, so it clearly wasn’t her. The other girl would have been 15 when my father was born, so that went along with the narrative that his mother was an unwed teenager. I did extensive research on the family and traced their roots back to Colonial America and the settling of Quebec. I began seeing DNA matches to other people who also shared these same ancestors. Distant matches, but clear matches. I still wasn’t 100% sure which one of the siblings was my grandparent, but it was pretty clear it was one of them.

     I had never suspected I had any French Canadian ancestry. I set about learning their history and culture. I dusted off my passport and took a short trip to Quebec to see the area where my ancestors came from. I visited a cemetery where some of the family was buried and paid my respects. I was talking to my mom the evening after visiting the cemetery and told her I would feel pretty foolish if these weren’t my people. My mother, who until this time had been playing devil’s advocate with every new piece of circumstantial evidence I uncovered, said, “Oh, Ellen, they must be.” 

     One day I received a message on Ancestry from a woman who had noticed I was researching the family. She asked what my connection was. I explained I was researching them trying to trace my father’s birth family. She was a cousin to the 4 siblings, but hadn’t had contact with them for years. We shared our online trees with each other and she wrote to me that when she saw the photos of my father, “she gasped and had tears” because he looked so much like her late brother. She shared the photos with other members of her family, and they all agreed my father must be their cousin. 

     I’d like to say that I did not go any further down this rabbit hole, but… I was thoroughly convinced the youngest daughter was my grandmother and decided to write her a letter. The letter was very nice and I simply told her my father’s birth name and  birth date and of my research into her family. I told her of my DNA matches to other descendants of her ancestors. I told her I was only researching to discover my roots and was not looking to forge a relationship or cause any upset. I gave her my email address and phone number in case she had any questions or wanted any other information. A couple of months later I received an email. The poor woman was probably trying to figure out how to deal with this lunatic writing to her. She said she was not my grandmother. I had no idea whether or not to believe her. After all, if she had been keeping this secret for over 6 decades, wouldn’t she be expected to deny it? 

     A few months later I petitioned the court, and received a copy of my father’s original birth certificate and his adoption records. When I opened the envelope, I fully expected to see my suspicions confirmed. I was momentarily stunned to see a name I had never heard of written on the sheet of paper. His mother was married? And 22? Where was the unwed teenager I had been told about? No wonder I didn’t find her on the 1940 census; Her surname in 1950 was her husband’s as she had been married in 1945. Her husband was not from Rhode Island – she met him while he was serving in the Navy. I discovered my father’s true birth mother also had French Canadian ancestry. I also learned that nearly all people with French Canadian ancestry are interconnected, so it wasn’t surprising that I would share ancestors with the other family I was so convinced I was related to.

     Armed with the information about the correct birth mother, I started a new family tree. It pained me to delete the tree with the wrong family. I had spent nearly two years researching them. I didn’t really mind having to make a fresh start. I love the research, and was quite happy to have another branch of my family to uncover. Making the fresh start led me to some lovely aunts and cousins that I never would have found otherwise!



Week 11 – Lucky

This week’s prompt is ‘lucky’. I’ve given the topic much thought this past week. Which ancestor had good fortune? Which Irish ancestor truly had the ‘luck o’ the Irish’? Thinking about genealogy and luck, it is my own luck that springs to mind. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort researching, but I cannot deny there has been an awful lot of luck involved. When I began researching my family history, I never expected to learn all that I have. I have made some amazing discoveries, through both traditional research and DNA testing. When I started out, I had far more questions than answers. Questions I thought would be impossible to answer. Now, most of them have been resolved, but there are still a few answers out there waiting for me.

My father was adopted. The adoption was closed and we had no information about his birth family. Incredibly, I was able to find my father’s birth family. The first huge piece of luck I had was finding a sympathetic Chief Judge who unsealed my father’s birth record and mailed me a copy. My father was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1950. I knew the agency he was adopted from, but as it was a sealed adoption, they could not provide any information. I could not even obtain his non-identifying information, despite the fact my father was deceased. Rhode Island gave adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates (OBC) on 01 July 2012. Unfortunately, this did not extend to the adult children of deceased adoptees. One day a woman in one of my social media genealogy groups posted a comment about her mother who had been adopted in Providence in 1910. I asked her how she got access to her mom’s OBC. She answered that she simply sent an email to the Chief Judge of Rhode Island Family Court. 

I procrastinated for a while. Surely my circumstances must be different… Maybe she got her record because there was no chance her mother’s parents could still be alive… Eventually, I sent an email. A few weeks later, I received an envelope from the court. Inside was a blank form to complete and return. The form had clearly been designed for another purpose, and most of the questions did not apply. I filled it out the best I could and sent it back, refusing to get my hopes up. I was still afraid that somehow the judge had misunderstood my request, and I would get a response telling me to get lost. It could not possibly be that easy. It was! Within a couple more weeks I had my father’s OBC. The was no father listed, but my grandmother finally had a name – Rita.

My luck continued, and I found an online obituary for my grandmother’s sister. One of her sons still lived in Rhode Island, so one Sunday, I picked up the phone and made my first phonecall to a stranger to request family history information. My new-found cousin so dearly wanted to help, but the sisters had lost touch over the years and he did not have much information about his aunt. He knew my grandmother had remarried, but not what her married name was or even if she was still alive. I left my contact details in case he remembered something, or spoke to another family member who did. I was surprised to see his number pop up on my caller ID a few hours later. It was his wife, calling to tell me that she had once written for a newspaper, and could not let a story lie. She had called her sister-in-law, who knew quite a bit about my grandmother. I furiously scribbled down notes as she talked. By the end of the call, I learned my grandmother’s married name, and the names of her seven (!) other children. My grandmother had been married and had 2 children before divorcing her first husband. She later remarried and had another 5 children with her second husband. Wow! What luck! How fortunate I was that I found people willing to help.

A quick Google search showed a local address and phone number for my grandmother. Before I could even think about what I was going to say, my fingers started dialing the phone. The number was probably disconnected… OMG! Someone answered! I asked to speak to Rita. The woman who answered replied, “My mother is on death’s door and cannot talk on the phone. Can I help you?” All at once, I had more thoughts than could comfortably fit in my head. This is the right number! My grandmother is alive! She’s on death’s door! This is my aunt I am speaking to! Even though the timing was terrible, I could not let the opportunity get away from me. I gently eased into my story. I told my father’s sister that I was doing some family history research and discovered my father was related to her. I told her my father had been adopted, and told her his full birth name. “That’s my big brother’s last name.” I then told her the name of his birth mother. She had never heard about a child being placed for adoption, and was having a hard time comprehending. We talked for a bit, and when I hung up the phone, I felt that she would probably just dismiss me as a kook. I know if someone called me to tell me I had a sibling I did not know about, my first reaction would be to think they were crazy. My next reaction would be to demand proof.

The next day, I made a copy of my father’s birth certificate and adoption paperwork. I wrote a letter telling a little of what my father was like as a person. I also included a few pictures of him at various ages. A few days later, I got a phonecall from another of my father’s sisters. She identified herself as Gail, and then added, “I guess I should say, Auntie Gail!” She said her sister had shown her my letter. From their pride in making homemade tomato sauce, to their love of reading western novels, she could not believe how similar my father was to his mother. She said my father was the spitting image of her older brother. We spent over an hour talking. From her, I learned that my grandmother had suffered a stroke the month before, and was non-verbal. Even though I dearly wanted to meet my grandmother, there was no way I would even think about suggesting we meet. I could not bring myself to possibly upset a sick, elderly woman at the end of her life. 

My grandmother passed away about 6 months later. I continued to stay in touch with Gail. Gail and I finally met about a year after our first phonecall. She had told me that Rita’s first husband was not her father. Rita had told Gail that her father was Rita’s childhood sweetheart. His name was on her birth certificate and he even paid support until Gail was 18. Gail and I speculated about whether or not she and my father had the same father. Fortunately for me, Gail agreed to take a DNA test. Regardless of whether she was my full or half aunt, we were family. It did not really matter, except to show if her father was my grandfather. 

I was immediately welcomed into Gail’s family. From the first day meeting them, it was as though I had known them forever. Once a month, she gathers her loved ones for a family supper. It’s an open invitation, and extends to neighbors, and friends of the family. Everyone shares what has been going on in their lives, and spends the evening eating delicious food and catching up. It’s a wonderful gatheringloud, crowded, and lots of fun. Auntie Gail cooks for days, and everyone leaves with a plate of leftovers. Every time I go, I meet another member of my new family. I am blessed to have found them. 

When the DNA results finally came in, it was confirmed. She and my father were full siblings. I now knew the identity of my paternal grandfather! He has already passed away, but his daughter is still living. I’d love to reach out to her and learn more about him, and I would love to see photos of him, but I do not think the ends justify the means in this case. I can only imagine how she would feel finding out that her father had fathered two other children whilst married to her mother. Maybe it would not upset her, or maybe she already knows, but I don’t think I have the right to potentially destroy her memories of her father. 

Learning about my father’s birth family took a lot of research, but there is no denying there was a large amount of luck. From seeing the right post on social media, a sympathetic judge, people willing to talk to a total stranger about their family, to a wonderful woman willing to spit in a tube, I was truly fortunate. Learning my father’s family origins was only the tip of my lucky iceberg. I’ve also had the good fortune to find an unbelievable amount of information on my mom’s paternal side. And my biggest piece of luck – finding out I have a sister, and having the opportunity to get to know the amazing woman she is. Such a blessing for this formerly only child! So, when it comes to luck, I don’t think any of my ancestors could’ve possibly been any luckier than I.