Where’s Aunt Milda?

On Sunday afternoon, my mom tries calling her sister in Jamaica. She doesn’t get through; she gets a strange automated message, saying that calls are somehow “banned” at that number.

A little weirded out, she calls her niece. Same thing.

Now she’s getting a tad concerned. She calls her other niece in the States (the one who recently visited Jamaica) and explains what happened. So her niece calls home and gets through, no problem.

In the phone conversation Mom and I have on Sunday evening, she recalls her American niece calling her back, assuring her that her sister is fine, and explaining that she (Mom’s sister) did try to go visit my great-aunt Milda at the nursing home.

Here’s where things get even weirder.

According to what my cousin says, my aunt arrives at the nursing home, only to be told by staff that Aunt Milda is no longer at the nursing home.

She’s been moved.

We don’t know where she’s been moved to, or when this happened.

So, doesn’t she have any kids? you’re asking. Why don’t you just ask them? And herein lies the beauty (translation: frustration) with extended family. Either you’re close-knit, or you’re not. In this case, it seems to be the latter.

At least one of Milda’s kids lives in Florida. Once upon a time, my uncle used to be fairly close with them, when they first moved to the States and were – legally, physically and figuratively – trying to get settled. But it seems they’ve drifted apart and lost contact with my uncle.

The other daughter we know of, my mom has never met.

But never fear: one of my uncles in Jamaica is on the case. Hopefully we’ll find out soon.

One current hunch is that perhaps she was taken back to the town she was living in previously, before her kids moved her to Montego Bay, and is in a different nursing home. But it’s all theory.

For now, we all have to sit and wait as this (accidental?) game of “keep-away with Aunt Milda” plays out.

Wherever she is, I hope she’s still alive and kicking (or quietly reading her Bible) because, for the amount of effort it’s taken to try and see her, never mind find her, I now reeeally want to meet her.

ARGH. Names.

Eight days ago, the Mormon genealogy Web site updated its database.


And for a few minutes, I got really excited. So I tried to search for some of my unknown relatives. No dice. I wasn’t completely surprised.

On a whim, I decided to check the digital numbers for some of the files. Turns out the records were for parishes OTHER than the ones my ancestors lived in.

While chatting with my mom recently, I was telling her about my non-progress with the family research, and we somehow started talking about last names. She told me to keep the following in mind when dealing with Jamaican birth records:

On the birth certificates of people whose biological parents didn’t marry (for a host of reasons), that person often assumed the mother’s surname, unless or UNTIL the mother decided otherwise.

Maybe you’re thinking, so what? This isn’t really anything new. (Or, you know exactly what I’m trying to get at.) But, humour me for a moment. I’m going to use my mom as an example.

For my entire life, I’ve thought that her maiden name was Campbell. That’s what she’s always told me. That’s what she conveyed in all sorts of anecdotes about her life. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s still true.


Her mother’s maiden name was Jenkins. So, technically, you could say that her maiden name was actually Jenkins, right up until she was registered for school. From that point on, her last name was Campbell. (Same with her sister.)

When she went to the UK in the early 1960s to study nursing (and I hope I have this part of the story right), she and her father had to go through some paperwork to verify that she was who she SAID she was, and that her father WAS actually her father, since she was identified by her mother’s surname, not her father’s.

So, when you’re searching for your Jamaican ancestors (or ancestors from ANY country for that matter), it makes things a hell of a lot harder if you don’t know their mothers’ maiden names. Or, even worse, you don’t have any names whatsoever.

Sigh. I actually don’t know how stuff like this doesn’t make genealogists throw up their hands with frustration sometimes. Oh well. Onwards.

POST-SCRIPT: According to an avid researcher on one of the Jamaican genealogy groups on Facebook, Family Search – the Mormon-run genealogy Web site, is having what it calls a Worldwide Arbitration Event, from May 1 – 8, 2015. Their aim is to enlist the help of volunteers to help reduce a backlog of some 6.5 million records that need to be indexed.

I wish I could take part, but my schedule’s not that flexible. They’ve got specific records they want indexed, but I’m hoping that there are a bunch of Jamaican records from St. James or Hanover parishes among them. (I’m crossing all my fingers and toes.)

It would be nice if someone taking part would keep an eye out for any wayward Campbells, Danielses, Careys, Jenkinses or Fosters on my behalf 🙂 !

The Haystack Gets Bigger

During a phone conversation earlier this week, my mom told me that my cousin had left Montego Bay and returned home to the States.

It’s a good thing I kept my expectations low –  turns out she never visited our great-aunt Milda. Apparently on the day she’d arranged to go see her, there was a torrential downpour and (since the roads aren’t all that great, even in the best weather) she couldn’t go.

The mystery continues.

My mom has since had a conversation with my aunt, who says she’s trying to make plans to go in the near future. A tiny part of me remains hopeful. The rest of me is trying to figure out how I’m going to scrape together enough time off to go to Jamaica in the fall.

IMAG0087 Okay. Fast-forward to Wednesday afternoon. I go to my mom’s house for my weekly visit. She’s shredding some documents in the kitchen — spring cleaning — and, as usual, doesn’t feel as if she’s made a dent.

THEN she says, “I was going through some things and found something you might be interested in.”

She picks up a dog-eared white envelope – perhaps legal-sized – and pulls out two black-and-white prints.

The penny drops.

They’re reproductions of art work by my half-uncle, who’s an artist by education (but hasn’t really done anything since the 1970s) and lives in Florida. He sent them to my mother ages ago. June 1992, to be precise.

IMAG0089(Here’s the backstory: the aforementioned cousin who’s just left Jamaica had, in the early 1990s, tracked down my mom’s half-brother and put the two of them in touch with one another.)

My uncle had written my mom a letter on the back of each of these prints, giving her a summary of what he had been doing for the last 30-or-so years of his life since they had last seen each other in the flesh — school, marriage, moving, kids and divorce, in approximately that order.

I quickly skim the letter … and then I get to the last paragraph.

IMAG0092In case it’s not clear from the photo (and apologies for the shadows I cast taking these images), the paragraph in question reads:

“As for Aunt Helen (sic) – Carol, Milda’s daughter – now living in Florida, does not know much about her, only that she is in Toronto – address unknown – she may be in a nursing home.”

This short passage suggests that Ellen did in fact move from Montreal to Toronto – which backs up what Mom has long since believed. Of course, this is based on word-of mouth, not actual proof.

There are now two complications with this search:

(1) I have no address. If Ellen was in a nursing home in Toronto, she could have been in any number of them. Which leads to the other complication …

(2) I have no idea of how long Ellen lived. Previous to the re-discovery of this letter, I’d been working under the assumption that she may have died in the late 1960s or sometime in the 1970s. But here’s what I didn’t account for: occasionally, some of the people in my mother’s family defy the odds and live for a long time. Great-aunt Milda is a great example (and I really hope she sticks around long enough for me to meet her).

If Ellen was somehow living at the time of this letter – 1992 – I’m now dealing with not only a lack of information, but perhaps privacy laws. But then again, she may not have been living by that point. Who knows? It’s also possible that Milda may not have kept in touch with her, or even know or remember when Ellen died.

So I’m still pretty much in the same place as before.

When I started this personal research project, I was fully aware that trying to find information about Ellen would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But as time goes on, I’m wondering if this is one needle that really doesn’t want to be found.

We’re WHAT, Now?

As I’ve said here before, I did my first ancestral DNA test last year.

The results have been posted up on the company’s Web site – via my own member page – for over 9 months. Based on the speculative nature of the tests, I have over 400 genetic relatives.

But going through the list of “matches”, my fellow members belong to all sorts of haplogroups – a number of them aren’t even close to mine. Some of them were able to do the male lineage – or Y-DNA – tests, so their genetic pictures are a bit more complete than mine.

One would like to hope to stumble across someone who could realistically be a family member. But when the closest “relative” shares less than 0.5 percent on one segment of a teeny, tiny shred of DNA, it’s hard not to be skeptical.

Well, for some people.

Twelve days ago, I got an email from someone on the Web site, asking to share ancestral genetic information. She was American, didn’t have a photo, and didn’t have any ancestral surnames that seemed to match mine. I couldn’t even see which haplogroup she belonged to.

I did think about not accepting the invitation. But I thought, what the hell. Maybe there’s more information on her profile that I can’t see without accepting the invitation.

So I accepted.

The next day, I received a message. It began:

“I am very happy to know that I am sharing this life with a new found cousin …



I read it a second time, along with the rest of the message, which instructed me to contact the woman’s brother – it seems that he was the one who managed the account on the Web site, and that I could get in touch with him for more information.

I sent a friendly, but somewhat neutral email in response, and promptly emailed the brother. I explained that his sister emailed me, that I was still fairly new to genealogy and DNA tests (which is true, in that I’m no expert in this at all, other than paying money to take them), that my family lineage was Jamaican, and that I was curious to see how I was related to his family.

At the very least, I figured that perhaps he’d take a look at my profile on the ancestral DNA account and see that we weren’t really all that related.

He wrote back a lengthy response. He talked about his own foray into genealogy and genetic testing (he’s a novice like me). And I suppose, given how I had written my original email, he’d assumed that I was starting from scratch — he then explained how hard it is to search for African-American ancestors because of records, that one had to be patient, etc. And then he asked me for ancestors’ names and dates to start the search.

Admittedly, I read the email and let out a deep sigh.

I don’t begrudge the guy or his sister for trying to connect the dots in their family tree – it’s exactly what I’ve tried to do, what many others are doing as I write this. And what he said about finding records for ancestors lost to time is true, and it’s no easy task.

But I read this email and thought, there is no way on this Earth that there are any links between his family and mine – UNLESS, there is some unnamed, unidentified ancestor who was either taken from Jamaica to the U.S., or vice-versa. The links would have to be extremely distant.

Just to be sure, I went back to the DNA testing Web site to see if this woman and I were in fact from the same haplogroup.

How do I explain this? We come from the same tree limb, but we sit on two completely different branches. Or maybe, we’re from different twigs sprouted from different branches of the same limb. Something like that. Either way, it doesn’t completely add up for me, so my skepticism is deep.

As of last week, the woman’s brother said he’d start looking into ye olde family research at the beginning of April.

This is either going to confirm what I already knew. Or this is going to get  … messy.

Another Test, Another Result

Apologies (once again) for the silence on my end. It was a very busy March, including a hectic work schedule that really didn’t leave me with enough time or motivation to write. But I’m back for the time being.

On the family research front, it’s pretty much at a standstill. My aunt went home to Jamaica in the new year, but she’s been dealing with personal stuff. One of my cousins went home last week for a visit. She’s currently still there, and I’m hoping she might have time to do what her mother hasn’t. I’m keeping my expectations low at this point.

Meanwhile, I decided to do an ancestral DNA test with another company to see if (a) I could get any more detailed results in terms of where part of my lineage may have come from, and (b) see if I would end up with the same result in terms of which maternal haplogroup I belong to.

There was a holiday special, so I bought an autosomal DNA test and a mitrochondrial DNA test (there’s a similar test for male family members, which traces lineage through the Y-chromosome).

Unlike the previous test – which involved spitting into a vial – for this one, I had to scrape the insides of my cheeks with a swab.

The autosomal test was ready in about four to five weeks. It was a longer wait for the mitochondrial DNA (or mtDNA) test results – somewhere around seven to eight weeks.

I wish I could say that the results were worth the wait. It was a bit underwhelming and not that easy to understand.

The one thing I learned from my mtDNA results: My haplogroup matches the results from the previous mtDNA test I did – with one exception.

Attached to the haplogroup designation was a second set of letters and numbers. Did this allude to a specific region or subgroup?

It took me a couple of tries at digging for similar questions on the forum boards. From what I understand, it might be some sort of mutation in my DNA that doesn’t precisely match the sequence for the specific haplogroup I belong to.

Perhaps this means that technically, I don’t belong to the haplogroup, but it’s the closest designation for my maternal DNA? (Amateur genetic genealogists, feel free to correct me if I’m completely wrong.)

When I checked my genetic matches, there were more than half a dozen other people who had this same designation/mutation as me. In fact, one of those matches (who lives in Barbados) contacted me a mere two hours after my test results were emailed to me. He asked me about the haplogroup we belonged to and if I understood what it meant. Unfortunately I barely understood my results at the time and couldn’t tell him a thing. (I’ve since emailed him about our shared mutation, but I haven’t heard back from him.)

As for my ancestral DNA test, I checked the “origins” map, which put me at 89 per cent African and 10 per cent European. That part was consistent with the other test. The head-scratcher is the European portion of my lineage, which the test results place in … Norway. There was a blurb about how members of that particular cluster are kin to other Europeans of the north. Maybe it’s plausible. But – as with all these tests – certain things you have to take with a grain of salt.

The only thing I’m really disappointed with is the lack of clear explanation of what my results really mean. Unless I’m a novice member of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, all the numbers and letters in my DNA don’t exactly make me salivate with excitement. Perhaps it’ll become a bit clearer with time and more internet research.

It was worth a shot.