Friday, December 25, 2015

On Finding A Cousin After All These Years

I'm old.

I didn't grow up with cousins, aunts, uncles or grandparents. My near relations consisted of my mother, father, sister (half sister, she had a different father) and later included my sister's husband(s) and children. That was it; there were no others.

Except for a couple of years in the 1970s, I never looked for other relations -- though I knew they existed in some quantity, especially on my father's side, he being one of eleven children, nine of whom lived to adulthood.

About a month ago a cousin I didn't know existed contacted me and we've been in furious email communication ever since. She had no idea of my existence nor did I have any knowledge of her existence.

Oh yes, I figured there must be aunts, uncles and cousins in abundance, but I didn't know who they were or where. I'd been told vague stories of "spinster aunties living in San Francisco," so those were the ones I tried to track down when I lived in the City in the 1970s, but I had no success. Turns out the reason why is because they were both dead by the time I tried to look them up. One was not, it turns out, a spinster at all. No, she was married and had three sons. She died the same week as my father did in 1969. But I didn't know that. The other aunt was unmarried, true enough, but she kept company, it would seem, with a gentleman caller for much of her life. They didn't marry, I'm told, because they couldn't. He was married but estranged from his wife. They did not divorce because of the strictures of the Catholic Church. Wouldn't you know. This sort-of spinster aunt died the same year I lived in San Francisco, but I'm pretty sure it was before I got there.

There was another aunt in San Mateo I didn't know about.

There was an uncle in Santa Barbara when I lived in Santa Maria (about 50 miles north of SB), there was another uncle in Los Angeles (somewhere) when I lived in the San Gabriel Valley between 1953 and 1959. Yet another uncle lived in Northern California (not sure exactly where but Susanville has been mentioned.)

There were cousins in fair abundance in the San Francisco Bay (South Bay) area throughout my childhood. Later there were cousins in Rancho Murieta and Roseville, suburbs of Sacramento where I lived and worked for decades.

Descendants of these cousins are mostly still in California, in the Central Valley, South Bay, Los Angeles, and the Sierra foothills.


I was born in Iowa where the family seat once was. Prior to that it had been in Ohio. And prior to that, it was in Ireland on one branch and Germany on the other.

So far as I know, there is no one of the Latin persuasion among my ancestors... but what do I know? Not much, it would seem as I get caught up with this new-found cousin.

My father and two of his sisters stayed in Iowa after 1946 whereas all of his other siblings high-tailed it to California just as soon as they could. I didn't know that, and I didn't know so many of them were so close at various times of my life. I knew one of my father's sisters in Iowa, but his other sister who stayed had died in 1960, and I never knew her.

My father and two of his sisters --and his other son-- stayed in Iowa after 1946.

I keep forgetting his other son, my half-brother, in these accounts. Yes, he was in Iowa, too, living with a couple in town, a couple who took care of him after some unpleasantness in the family which led to the death of his one of his previous caregivers. He was disabled with what is now called autism, but at that time that term was not used. He was called an "idiot savant."

I'm told that he came to see me when I was an infant, but I have no recollection of ever meeting him, though I have vague memories of meeting his caregivers in the early 1960s when I spent two summers with my father in Iowa.

After his caregivers could not longer look after him, he was placed in a Catholic residential care facility in town. I've recently learned the name of it. It's still in operation, so after the new year, I just might see if I can learn anything about what became of my half- brother. I don't know that they would still have records from 50 years ago, but they might...

The newly-found cousin I've been in contact with has an extensive family archive that she received from her mother (my father's sister). Some of what's in it is familiar to me from similar items and stories I received from my father, but much of it is totally new.

Wow. I never knew so many things about this family, so many things.

On the other hand, I know a lot of things she never knew, never had any inkling of. She only knew of the first of my father's three marriages, for example. Well, guess what? I didn't know squat about that marriage -- as no one ever mentioned it to me -- until very recently when I found documentation online. It came as a complete surprise to me. My father was married twice after that first one. News to her. He fathered two sons. She never knew. Etc.

 Apart from her mother's name, I didn't know anything about her. Turns out she was actually the other "spinster auntie in San Francisco" that was vaguely referred to now and again. Seems that she and her actual spinster sister were a team, working for the government in Washington DC and later as public stenographers in their own business in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco during and after WWII. She married in 1947, though, and another aunt came out to California soon thereafter.

My newly-found cousin was born the same year I was. She was born in San Mateo where she grew up. She now lives in the Sierra foothills east of Lodi.

Oh. I didn't know and wouldn't have guessed.

The stories and scans we've been sending back and forth to one another have been illuminating history neither of us knew. We didn't know in part because there were so many things our parents never spoke of. There were so many aspects of their lives, it seems, that were not to be mentioned in front of the children. Or in some cases were not to be mentioned at all.

And yet, the records exist and many of them are now discoverable online, and because of that, stories that never were told before are now being explored and some of them are being told.

My new-found cousin has suggested that since I seem to know quite a bit more about The Family than she ever did, I ought to write a book that tells the story as completely as I can. Well, that would be a challenge to say the least.

There are still so many dark corners and unknown -- possibly unknowable -- aspects of the tale. I've already filled in some of the blanks with fiction and speculative interpretations. But there's still so much I have no knowledge of at all.

The story we've been exploring with one another is a family saga in the classic sense. It's a drama, too, some aspects of which are tragic, others not so much. My father's story is probably one of the most tragic aspects, but it's by no means the only one.

On the other hand, I've done a good deal of exploration of my mother's background and ancestry, something she knew very little about, especially on her father's side. What I've found -- some of which I've posted about here in the past -- is really stunning to me. I had no idea, or only the vaguest idea, before I got into the research in a big way.

I've tagged this series, "Who Are These People?" because I so often really wonder about the people I come from. Who are these people, indeed. It's still so much of a mystery. The more I learn, the more of a mystery it seems to become...

Merry Christmas to all...

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