A Note to My Readers: Brick Wall. Head Scratcher. Haunting Mystery.
There are degrees of frustration that affect family historians as we search for answers about our ancestors. Why did they move west? When and why did they in particular change the spelling of their surname? Why is this child living with a relative and not their parents? What happened in the winter of 1878 when three children died? Was THIS man or woman my ancestor or was it the individual with the same name and approximate age…living in the same town? Why does one enumeration say they were from Massachusetts and another Connecticut. Some questions are answered with official documentation while some conclusions can be made through analyzing available evidence. And some clues come from interviewing family members. Or combination of the three.
One of the questions that is hard to deal with is “What happened to my grandparent or great grandparent?”. We accept that before centralized record keeping or a diligent family historian’s accounting that some individual’s fate will remain a void in our information. The closer we are in relationship and generation to a forebear, the more we are puzzled and driven to know. Chances are…the disappearance…the lack of information regarding his or her death…is some kind of family secret.
I am working on one of those mysteries…my paternal great grandmother, Lillian W. Jennings Martin. I have dug in with a significant number of resources…obvious and obscure…and spent a good amount of time parsing and analyzing. To no avail. Yet. How much do I invest in finding out what happened to this young woman who died shortly after her daughter was born in 1898? Or did she? I kept a research worksheet for her and the scratch notes clearly show my hope rise at a possible lead…and the burn when it turns out to be fruitless. No death certificate on record in the New York City area. Every borough heard from. No death notice or obituary…in the New York metro area….even in her hometown of Auburn, New York where her large Jennings family lived. No record of burial in the myriad of the likely cemeteries. The last documentation I have of her is the 1892 New York State census living with her husband, Henry and her two sons, Albert H. (my grandfather) and George E. in the 18th Ward of Brooklyn, New York.
If I find the facts about her somewhere in my determined efforts and they are unpleasant, I can imagine there will some kind of closure for me. Regardless.
I am reminded as I pursue Lillian in the void, the words of French essayist, Joseph Joubert.
When go you in search of honey, you must expect to be stung by bees.
My parents’ generation had euphemisms or slick diversions in conversation about one individual or another. “Never speak ill of the dead”. “If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.” “Don’t air your dirty laundry.” I am sure we have all heard one or more of those homilies as we have tried to elicit information from an elderly relative about the family history. SOMEONE is always some kind of ghostly presence…acknowledged as a relative, but glossed over in a purposeful fashion. Rarely casual. Family secrets were hinted at, but in the interest of propriety and family pride nothing was said about a “black sheep” or mental illness. Let alone the “D” word – divorce. No feet of clay. No unpleasantness. Perhaps the words “tragic” or “unfortunate” might be expressed. As children, we GOT it. It wasn’t our business and the subject was closed never to be spoken of again. On to the nice memories.
If anyone is like me, that leaves some serious gaps. I never did get the courage to ask my mother about the “tragic or unfortunate” ones…or the ones that simply were glossed over. My bad. But then again, she had her own hardships and lived on a plane of pink clouds and only good thoughts with which to cope. To pry at that in search of the truth would have been utterly cruel on my part. My mother’s siblings…my aunts and uncle…were tender and adoring and the warmth and affection I received from them curbed my curious nature to probe their childhood. I accepted the vague references and used them to work through the facts and found answers to their immediate family dynamic outside of sentimentally crafted memories of their childhood. Some of what I found on my own was very revealing. And a bittersweet reminder that we come from a family of human beings. I still have some wonderful stories to embrace and I celebrate that sweetness.
My father died when I was ten and we were not terribly close to his family. We had picnics and summer visits along Cayuga Lake. It was noisy with plenty of older cousins, but I forged no deep and personal familial bonding with them after my father’s death. My uncle was a jokester with only the occasional approachable moment. Unlike my mother’s family, my father’s sister was not a ‘warm fuzzy’ presence for me. The secrets were almost palpable in my father’s family history and when I began my research, absurdly public and easy to find. His father’s brother, John C. Martin, was publicly labeled as the Black Sheep in the devoutly Methodist family…stealing from his brother and father and making headlines in the local newspaper. My father’s father killed himself at the age of twenty-four. In front of my horrified grandmother and father who was five at the time. It was a story my mother told me after Dad’s death, but with little detail and a rush to close to the subject. We moved on with the business of daily life never to discuss it again. Once again research revealed the real story was more horrifying and painful than I had ever imagined. What happened to undo my grandfather so profoundly? Drink…like his uncle John Martin. Was there something more?
In my case a bridge generation is long gone so getting a clue as to why a young woman simply disappeared…’off the grid’ so to speak…is a reality. Or why her son took his life…despondent. In fact, I am now that bridge generation. The one who can fill in blanks. Some of them anyway. But Lillian? I still am haunted by what I don’t know. Could she have been a victim of Tuberculosis…in an institution…or gone mad and been ‘sent away’? Could her son have witnessed some terrible moment and visited his unresolved turmoil on himself and his young family? My great grandfather was a serious bible-toting Baptist. Divorce is highly unlikely. OR. If he had young children with an incapacitated mother, would he have been given permission by his church to move on? He listed himself as widowed in the 1900 Federal Census and the 1905 New York State Census and remarried in 1910.
Even as I write this, the questions and facts swirl in my head…certain that IF I just think about what I know…and what I don’t…and where I might look, a clue might just emerge as to where to look next.
It’s just good to remember the bees.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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