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.

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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.