All The Names

IMAG0665Have you ever opened a cupboard or closet, looking for something specific, only to have a bunch of objects come tumbling out (and occasionally hitting you in the face)?

I think, figuratively (or is that metaphorically?) speaking, that’s just what happened to me.

When I recently found my great-aunt Ellen’s birth date on a genealogy Web site, I ended up uncovering some things I didn’t intend to.

According to my mother, her father (the maternal grandfather I know about) was one of six children.

Weeeell … the internet showed me another story … one that included the names of two other siblings – sisters – that I’d never heard of.

Turns out my mom had never heard of them, either.

At first, I thought I had made a mistake. But the parents’ names were exactly the same. I mean, what would actually be the chances of having two families in the same village, with two sets of parents with the exact same names? It didn’t make any sense.

Not to mention, there were three other names that looked suspect. Like they could also be siblings.

Before I go further, a bit of a rewind:

A lot of the records on the Web site had scanned images of various records, such as birth certificates. The catch is, while one can search to one’s heart’s content, in order to see said scanned images to confirm hunches and suspicions, one has to create an account.

Until this point, I didn’t create an account. The terms and conditions I had to agree to, if I started creating a family tree on this site, left me uneasy.

But as I continued to revisit the site, the curiosity increasingly ate away at me like a dirty penny immersed in a glass of pop.

I had to bite the bullet. So I created an account, for the purpose of being able to fully conduct searches, and returned to those records.

One by one, I checked out the birth certificates for the kids I knew about for sure.

And then I checked the others.

Holy shit.

My grandfather was one of ELEVEN.

So what happened to the other five names? I searched the site, and couldn’t find any other information. My best guess is those unlucky souls didn’t make it out of childhood.

Perhaps they died as babies or young kids, of crib death, illness or unfortunate accidents. But that’s how secretive families (mine included) can be.

Then, things took another weird turn.

A recent Google search for the village my mom’s paternal relatives are from, coughed up a result for a reverend with a last name far removed from my own.

Seems that – with the help of his grandson – he’d done some genealogical digging on a scale much grander than my own. I’d landed on a detailed document detailing six generations of one descendant of his family.

Some of those descendants are my mother’s relatives.

A number of them have long since passed. But the ones my mom recognizes, she and her sister knew them, or were cared for by them, perhaps in the summers between school.

So. I’m having a bit of trouble fully processing the information.

I suppose this type of thing happens is unavoidable when digging into one’s family history.

But so many names at once?!

For now, I’m putting these discoveries aside and will try focusing on two searches:

(1) What happened to my great-aunt

and, if I’m successful

(2) Trying to find out about my long-dead paternal grandfather, a rolling-stone railway worker, about whom tiny specks of information were divulged to me while preparing for my father’s funeral in February.

If my mother’s family was secretive, my dad’s people sounded like Fort Knox.

I hope that vise-like grip will loosen when I go to visit some cousins and uncles for several days, later this week. One of them is throwing a 21st birthday party for his step-daughter. And, from the sounds of the equipment, planning and logistics required, and the party itself, it’s going to be a Big Deal. (If someone doesn’t fire off fireworks, I’ll be surprised.)

Wish me luck.

 

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Finding Ellen

As the child of immigrants, I was always of the firm belief that my mother was the first of our family to step on Canadian soil, setting in motion this chapter of my family history.

I suppose that’s still true. But as I recently found out, it’s not entirely accurate.

Years before, one of her aunts arrived here from Jamaica.

Growing up, she’d asked her dad about his sister, named Helen. He scolded her, telling her not to mention his sister’s name. No explanation was given.

She and her older sister knew what this aunt looked like, by way of a single photo – she was, by then, approaching middle age – and kept it for years. (It has since disappeared.)

After she arrived here in 1968 (after seven years of training, then working, as a nurse in the United Kingdom), my mother tried to look for Aunt Helen, under the impression that perhaps she’d come to Toronto. She called all the women in the phone book with the same name, only to come up empty.

And, for years, the story behind Aunt Helen remained a cold case of sorts, shrouded in mystery.

On last fall’s trip to Italy, Mom had spoken about her side of the family and mentioned this aunt with no story nor reason behind her abrupt departure to Canada, or the rift it apparently caused within her dad’s family.

I’m sure this wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned this mystery relative. But for whatever reason, this time, it stuck, and has been lodged in a corner of my mind, like a dog-eared cue card wedged in a dusty book, for months.

My father’s sudden death this past winter – aside from leaving me with a lingering melancholy – has gotten me thinking about the importance of family. Or, at least, the importance of trying to know about one’s family.

I started thinking recently, wouldn’t it be nice if I could find something out about Mom’s Aunt Helen … to give her the gift of some closure, to stop wondering?

Two and a half weeks ago, out of sheer boredom with my life – and my work – I decided to start scratching away.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Mom didn’t know when this aunt was born, or even when she would have left Jamaica (other than that it was before she was born, perhaps even before her sister’s birth three years earlier).

A lot of my Google searches were dead ends. I even tried looking for any proof of Helen’s existence, through the free resources offered by the Library and Archives Canada Web site – combing through immigration records, scouring for any record of her voyage on ship passenger lists. Nothing.

Late one night, I tried Google for the upteenth time, and stumbled upon a genealogy site run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (Yes, Mormons run a genealogy Web site. They also have many, many birth, death, marriage, baptism and other church records from around the world – including Jamaica. I only learned this recently.)

So I tried to input what I knew, using different combinations, parents’ names (as I knew them), with no dice.

Frustrated with the lack of results, I tried another approach, by using my grandfather’s name to see if that prompted any results.

Mere seconds later, I was swearing and staring, wide-eyed, at what looked like a listing for my grandfather’s date of birth (which I would have to verify with my mother the next day), and … based on the information … the listing for the birthdate of my long-lost aunt.

As it turns out, she wasn’t Helen – as I was led to believe – but Ellen. (I also stumbled across other family records, but more on that later.)

The following day at work, I called my mom and verified my grandfather’s birth date, and then told her about Ellen’s birth record – which, understandably, threw my mom for a bit of a loop. After about 20 minutes of excitedly sharing my findings, I hung up the phone, and decided to take another crack at Library and Archives Canada.

It led me to a photocopy of the passenger list, which included the record of her travels to this country.

I could hardly believe it. All I could do was gaze at my computer screen in sheer disbelief. I kept that on-screen window open for at least a good couple of hours.

In the span of about 15 hours, I had gone from having almost no information, to two solid pieces. The blurry shape had acquired a bit of focus.

Further digging helped me to understand what I now know (so far):

Almost 85 years ago, Ellen left her well-to-do family, boarded a ship – the “Lady Rodney” – from Kingston, Jamaica, and arrived in Montreal some 11 days later.

She was all of 20 years old, and alone. She came to work as a domestic, at a time when Canada was doing everything in its power to remain as white as it possibly could, discouraging all but handfuls of requests for “coloureds” (African-Americans and British West Indians) to be let into the country.

The timing of her arrival was also interesting, as it was roughly four months before the big stock market crash of 1929, and the start of the Great Depression.

But why Canada? Why not Great Britain? And how on earth did she find her employer? Those are things I’m not sure I’ll ever find out.

Further online surfing and visits to the library have given me a bit of context about the time Ellen would have come to Canada. But no other concrete bits to go on.

Did Ellen stay in Montreal? Did she, in fact, move to Toronto at some point? And when did she die?

These are the things I hope I’ll get to discover, to help flesh out a story with already extraordinary beginnings.

 

 

 

My Personal History Project

So. I know it’s been a very long time since I’ve last posted.

If you’ve seen my last entry, then you know the reason why.

It’s been a bit of a tough, depressing time, to be honest.

But in addition to losing my father, I also moved into a new apartment. Which, apparently,  are two of the most stressful things that a person can go through.

There have also been job cuts at my workplace. Fortunately, I’m safe, for the moment. It merely means that I have at least one thing that’s resembles normalcy this year so far.

And now, we’re barrelling into summer. And with no major trips planned – only one short one, but more on that later – it seems like it’s going to be relatively sedate.

In some ways, that’s fine. But I’ve been bored.

And that boredom got me thinking: beyond what I do for a living, who am I, really? What am I?

I’m of Jamaican parentage. But if you know the island’s motto (“Out of many, one people”), then you know there’s a bit more to it than that. It’s been a question that’s taken up residence in a deep corner of my brain for at least the last couple of years now.

So, it was late on a Saturday night roughly a couple of weeks ago, that I decided I would start trying to find out.

I ordered a DNA ancestry test online from one of those companies in the States and mailed back a saliva sample, just to see what they’ll find.

Now, let’s be clear: I don’t in any way, shape or form think this test will magically tell me everything I need to know about my genetic makeup. It’s not necessarily going to tell me where specifically my lineage came from, or from what side of the family. Not unless I’m willing to shell out more money and start begging family members to pay money to swab their cheeks or spit into plastic vials.

But it would be nice to have some sort of clue.

I probably won’t find out for at least another couple of weeks. So in the meantime, I’ve taken up another mini-hobby …

One that’s led me in a direction I didn’t intend to go.