I’m addicted to ancestry.com. It started innocently with a free two-week membership and an occasional quick search every couple of days. But then an hour or two of researching turned into five, six, or seven. It became a compulsion—my fix for the day. That was nine months ago.
This obsession began after my father died. I wanted to fill in the blanks concerning his life. I had heard stories about his childhood, but wasn’t privy to any details. I never thought about probing into ‘the rest of the story’ while we lived under one roof and when I left home at an early age, I was too angry to care. His childhood circumstances were deferred by my own perceived injustices while growing up.
I had the basic facts: Before his first birthday, he became an orphan. His father left his mother shortly after he was born and she was unable to care for him. As a small boy in Chicago, he lived in a variety of foster homes. “Couples would take me in for the money, but I felt only one couple, the Wagoner’s, really loved me.” He only mentioned this once to me, but I never forgot it.
Why aren’t we more curious at a young age? Why don’t we ask pressing questions when family members are still alive? Are we, as children and young adults, so consumed with living that we have no interest in those who came before us, or is it self-absorption that consumes our daily life and prevents us from exploring family secrets?
My first search in ancestry began with my paternal grandmother Elizabeth Samuelson. I quickly learned her real name, Louisa, from an online birth certificate and that she had a twin sister, Margareta, whom I never met. They were born on June 18, 1897. My grandmother Elizabeth died on my thirteenth birthday. That fact connected us through the years even though I hardly knew her.
I found a marriage certificate for Margareta to a man named Jack James, from Missouri. They were both 23-years old. From his death certificate, I learned he was a bartender in San Francisco who died years later from tuberculosis. No trace of Margareta until I open up a 1940 census showing her current residence in a boarding house in L.A., and listing her work as ‘hotel maid.’ The same year census trace of Louisa (alias Grandma Elizabeth) placed her in Chicago living with my father, who was 25-years old at the time. Next to my father’s name under ‘occupation’ was the word ‘Lawyer’ printed in black bold letters. I gathered from that information he was supporting his mother.
My searches often followed trails not planned and received answers that were never expected. One clue led to another and more twists and turns followed. My grandmother had four sisters and three brothers from her mother’s first marriage. It turned out that my great grandmother married twice and had an additional four children with her second husband. And all along I thought I had come from a small family!
I’ve met a few of my new cousins who are amazed at my findings. I took the time to compose a family tree for my new relatives. They were astonished by my discoveries—family history and faded photos. My favorite find: a photo of my great grandmother Rose as a young girl, with mischief in her eyes. And yes, there is a definite resemblance.
I remembered the early clue about the Wagoner’s and decided to search them out. I confess to looking them up while on a roll. After a few hours of searching, I found Percy Evan Wagner’s obituary and verified dates and names. From his wife’s obit, I found a nephew, Chip, who lived in the Midwest and I emailed him my story. He quickly responded and asked for details about my father: date of birth and where he lived in Chicago. Chip told me, “Yes, my aunt and uncle had a foster child when they were first married. I’ll look through some of their photos and get back to you.”
Ancestry, with the help of Google, created a detective who cannot be stopped. I do this for my father and for my own piece of mind. I want to create a real family for him and an extended family for me and whoever else needs one.
My addiction never leaves me, although it can stay dormant for weeks at a time. Now is not one of those times. My sister-in-law recently asked me to find her biological parents. Turns out her father was in the Detroit Giacalone family running the gambling operations out of the Anchor Bar during the 50s and 60s. Her biological mother was a dancer and bartender who had an affair with ‘Good Looking Solly’ before he was murdered in 1971. I felt as if I struck gold, I found the missing jewel, I pieced the puzzle together.
I wonder what I’ll uncover next.