Making A Connection

Sometimes, social media has worked in my favour.

I’ve used it for work and for making plans.

I’ve used it to sell a pair of side tables — and a cake.

But when it comes to genealogy, it’s been hit or miss.

After finding the obituary for Ellen’s former guardian in Montreal, I decided give social media another try, by taking my discovery to one of the parish genealogy groups I frequent on Facebook.

I’ve tried this before, with photos or queries about direct ancestors. People have generally responded positively, but rarely with “I know this person”, or “This person is my [insert relative here]”. But since it wasn’t a direct relation, maybe it would work this time. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

On September 12th, I posted the obituary for Alberta Alexandrina Gilpin, along with a call-out to identify any of the names of Alberta’s nieces listed, if they were related.

One of the group’s members responded 90 minutes later.

That’s never happened to me.

While exchanging comments with him, a second member responded. Turns out Alberta was his great-great aunt. He’d been filling in his family tree, and I’d just helped give him more information.

(Side benefit of doing your own family research – helping unlock a door for someone else in the process!)

But back to the first member: he was from Brooklyn, but was out of town and was willing to help me out when he returned. He said he was visiting Toronto … where I live.

I told him this, and he suggested we talk by phone.

So the next evening, we had a phone conversation where I read him each of the nieces’ names … and he identified almost every single one of them.

He told me one of the nieces has a daughter who still lives in Montreal, who he promised to reach out to when he returned home …

And one of the other nieces in the obit is still alive, and living in Toronto.

Following our call, he called the living niece in Toronto. According to him, she apparently knew of Ellen, but couldn’t recall the full details. She had some information written down somewhere, but would look for it.

Hopefully my new acquaintance will follow up with her and find out if she’s been successful finding that information.

In the meantime, I’m trying really hard not to get excited, because the information could be related to someone else with the same first name*. It may not even be information about Ellen.

But deep in the pit of my stomach, the thought there might finally be a little more information about my great-aunt, has ignited a tiny ember of hope.

 

 

*When the group member initially responded to my message, he thought Ellen was related to his family, because he had a family member also named Ellen. I had to correct him and clarify what I thought my great-aunt’s connection might be to Alberta.

 

Wow.

So I haven’t been as prolific with writing as I’ve been promising. But I do have a small development on the family tree front, and I didn’t even lift a finger.

A few days ago, I got a message through 23andMe from a DNA relative, wanting to share ancestry reports.

Sometimes it piques my interest, because I’m always curious to see who contacts me and how much we’re actually “related”. But I’ve always tempered it with the fact that our DNA matches are usually less than 1 per cent. So I’ve always taken it with a grain of salt.

Last Thursday was different.

When I opened 23andMe and looked at the DNA comparison, it wasn’t less than 1 percent. It was just over 4 percent.

It still doesn’t sound like a lot. But considering the only other family member to submit a sample – and score much higher percentage-wise – was my brother, I wasn’t going to dismiss this.

I agreed to share my ancestry results, then took a look at some of her information. One of the family surnames in her profile – Jenkins – belongs to my maternal grandmother. That provided a bit more proof to me that we were related. But to what degree?

I showed the result to a co-worker (who’s also of Jamaican descent and currently obsessed with untangling her family roots). She showed me this really cool thing that I’d never heard of, called DNA Painter, where you take the number of shared DNA material (measured in cM), plug it into a box, and it tells you what your probable relation is. It gives you a number of possibilities – so it’s not exact – but it guesses as close as it can, based on the information. It’s a really cool tool!

This morning, my relative sent a message. She mentioned how surprised she was that we matched with such a percentage. She’d also looked at my information, and said what I already thought: we were related through the Jenkins family line. But then she mentioned the name of her grandmother (which tweaked something in my brain, and I have to confirm that with my mom), and named the town her grandmother was from.

Oh, we are DEFINITELY related, I thought. So I responded, and told her my grandmother’s name.

Bingo. My grandmother’s name apparently has come up in conversation with her family.

So our grandmothers were sisters — we’re second cousins! (Or half-second cousins, if DNA Painter is correct, since I don’t know who my relative’s grandfather was.)

She lives in Philadelphia, and one day very soon, I’m going to give her a call.

I guess it all just goes to show you that when you’re doing family research and you have a long lull or hit a brick wall, once in a while, something – or someone – reminds you that it’s worth it.

Bye, Milda.

I was chatting with my mom yesterday – vocalizing my frustration with something; I think it was tax-related – when my mom said, “I have some sad news.”

Turns out my great-aunt Milda passed away the day before.

It’s sad, but not heartbreaking, and certainly not surprising. The woman had just turned 102 (earlier this spring).

Whether people liked her or not, she lived a long life, a decent life. I have no idea what the cause might’ve been, other than old age. If she went to sleep and never woke up, I can’t think of a better way to go.

I’m fortunate and glad I made the effort to visit her a few years back.  At the height of my family research obsession, the answers she gave me might have been miniscule, but they told me the research I’d been doing on my own was on the right track.

And now the last branch of my grandfather’s part of the family tree has fallen. This may very well mean I’ve done all I can do with respect to my enigmatic great-aunt Ellen. Who knows?

But for now, I’ll say: Rest in peace, Milda.img-20160318-wa0002716373213.jpg

Making Plans & Finding Clues

On Sunday evening, my mom called to share some interesting news.

During a phone conversation with my uncle from Florida, he suggested that someone should organize a birthday party for my great-aunt Milda, who turns 100 next year.

Of course, knowing my uncle, so it’s a not just a “suggestion”. He’s already brought it up with my uncle Egton in Jamaica, is willing to put a little money towards the shindig, and thinks Mrs. Shearer (one of my distant cousins) should help organize it.

This last point has me arching an eyebrow.

From what I’ve heard, my great-aunt was something of a — shall we say — strong personality in her younger days. So a number of family members who really know her, aren’t exactly Team Milda – Mrs. Shearer included.

But, my mom said, my uncle explained that Mrs. Shearer organized the last family reunion roughly 15 years ago (I didn’t go at the time), so she could make things happen. Plus, he added, no matter how anyone felt about Milda, she was the matriarch, the only one left from that branch of the family, and since she was reaching such a huge milestone, the least we could do for her was to celebrate the occasion.

From what I understand, one of Milda’s daughters goes down to Jamaica occasionally (either once a year, or once in a while, I don’t remember), and so Egton will have to broach the subject with her, to see what she thinks. We’ll see.

After the call with my mom, I went online to see if I could find anything new on any of my ancestors.

Given my recent windfall of records for Collin and Clemise, I didn’t expect to find anything.

I started out searching for documents linked to my aunt Milda’s spouse. But at some point, I typed in “Helen” – just for laughs – and in a matter of moments, I was staring in mild bemusement at three indexed border crossing records for my great-aunt, from the mid-1930s.

The timing was … odd. (Maybe this was Ellen’s way of approving of the idea of a party for her baby sister.)

Based on the information listed on each of the cards, here’s what I think I know.

First, it’s definitely her – the bottom of the cards list her original date of arrival in Montreal. Plus, it lists “Hanover, Jamaica” as her place of birth.

Other details:

Ellen’s “home” address was one I hadn’t seen before. I cross-referenced it with a Montreal city directory from that time, and based on what I found, I can only assume she was renting a room from the person listed at that address.

She had a friend in New York. The cards all state that she visited a fellow domestic named Sylvia Hill – in Corona, (which I think is now Queens) New York, in August, 1934. On the third card (from 1936), it listed a Mrs. Lillian Robinson, with an address in Harlem, but no additional information explaining who she was.

One of these things is not like the others … Two of the cards listed a Mrs. John Gilpin, with an address that differed from Ellen’s home address. There was a word preceding Mrs. Gilpin’s name … it looked like “Guardian”, but I wasn’t entirely sure, because the scanned image’s resolution was blurry, and the word had been typed over. The third card listed a Mrs. Ingham, whose residential address matched Ellen’s.

SO, I thought. Ellen DID have other employers. Interesting.

What was even more interesting was that the top of two of the cards were stamped with the words “DEBARRED” and “REOPENED AND ADMITTED”. I didn’t really pay attention to the stamps at first, but they would be explained to me later.

Tuesday afternoon, to be exact.

I’d been studying those cards for two days, when it suddenly occurred to me to check the scanned images to see if the cards were only one-sided.

Nope.

Typed on the back of two of the cards was the following:

Mrs. Gilpin, former guardian, and applicant “had fuss”; no other friends or relatives in Montreal. Employed by Mrs. H. J. Ingham.

The back of the card was time-stamped December 20, 1935 and December 23, 1935 (twice).

So Mrs. Gilpin was Ellen’s guardian in Canada. But why did a 26-year-old woman need a “guardian”? (I suspect I’d understand why, but there’s nothing to back it up — yet.)

The note confirmed that Ellen had no relatives here in Canada. I was, however, puzzled by the notion Ellen didn’t have any friends here — that she was completely alone.

I shared my newest findings with the administrator from one of the Facebook genealogy groups. She had looked at the cards, and pointed out that Ellen was refused entry back into Canada.

Of course, this only sparked more questions:

Why was Ellen refused entry back into Canada? What sparked the “fuss” between Ellen and her guardian, Mrs. Gilpin? Did that cause problems for Ellen at the border? Was Mrs. Gilpin solely Ellen’s guardian, or was she also her employer?

And what about Sylvia? If Ellen had no friends in Canada, then how’d they meet? Was Sylvia a friend from back home? Or did they befriend each other in Montreal, only for Sylvia to move to New York (for whatever reason)?

Beyond these questions, this search reminded me of a valuable lesson:

When finding an ancestor’s records online, ALWAYS check to see if there is a second page. Because you never know what you might find.

A Lot of Church

Sunday, July 26th.

Full disclosure: I’m not a church-goer.

Do I believe in a higher power? Yes. But that’s my personal belief. And I have a very … ambivalent relationship with organized religion.

However, because of my experiences in attending two different church sects in my youth, I try to be understanding and respectful when it comes to people’s religious beliefs, and their right to worship.

So when I was hastily planning my trip, I knew, in the back of my mind, that a trip to church with my cousin would likely happen. As I panicked over what to pack, and voiced my concerns to my mom, she said to me, “I’m sure you won’t have to go to church, if you don’t want to.”

Wrong. So. Wrong.

For folks who are of West Indian (or even African-American) descent, you’ll understand what I’m about to say. But to anyone else: in the Caribbean (and in this case, Jamaica) church is a serious business. And they can be equally as serious about their church attire.

It’s not just about putting on a dress, versus pants. It’s wearing stuff that other people might reserve for a special occasion, like a wedding.

Sometimes, there are hats involved. Not fascinators. HATS.

If there is such a thing as “church hat swagger”, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Of course, I listened to my mom, and only packed a sundress.

The subject of a church outfit briefly came up early in the trip, but didn’t go very far. But when it finally reared its ugly head on Saturday, K had to lend me an outfit.

Although she didn’t say anything, I don’t think she wasn’t terribly impressed – she told me, “You must always carry something casual as well as formal.”  (I also overheard her talking to her friend and mentioning how I didn’t bring any church outfits. Lesson noted and learned.)

In the end, she lent me a tight, black, knit dress, a pair of pointy-toed shoes and some jewellery to match. This was going to be an interesting ensemble to wear in the heat.

**********************************************************************

One of K’s friends picks us up and drives us over to the Moravian church around the corner from my (absent) aunt’s house.

Unlike church services in my youth — and despite the oppressive heat — this one keeps my attention, and keeps me awake. It’s a nice service, and the small congregation seems lovely. It’s also fairly brief at, 90 minutes in length.

Minutes after the service ends, there’s no dallying — there’s another church-related event happening in St. Elizabeth parish. One of the former pastors of K’s church is being ordained as a bishop in a special event/service. And we’re going.

I will tell you one thing about the drive down: it’s probably the coolest I’ve been, for the longest period of time, during this entire trip. It’s downright heavenly. I gaze at the scenery as we pass through town after town. I close my eyes …

And when I open them, we’re driving under a shady tunnel of trees, with fields beyond them. Turns out, we’re passing through Holland Bamboo.

A little while later, we arrive at the church, in the town of Santa Cruz.

It’s two levels, with a sizeable upper level for those members of the congregation who can’t get a seat in one of the pews on the main level. Inside, the overhead fans – all 10 of them – are whirring away. The only thing it shares with the one back in Montego Bay are those hard, unforgiving wooden pews.

And people are dressed to the hilt. Dress of all styles and colours. Heels of all heights. Hats of all sizes.

There isn’t a free seat anywhere. K and I are crammed into a pew like sardines; the black knit dress clings to me like a small child.

Forty-five minutes after we arrive, the service begins. There are two choirs on this occasion – a senior choir that sings the hymns for most of the church program, and a youth choir.

The presiding bishop speaks for a good 45 minutes before the man of the hour is officially ordained. All in, the ceremony lasts about two and a half hours.

After a restroom break and some refreshments, we eventually leave for home.

The trip back seems to take longer than the one to St. Elizabeth. There’s a brief roadside stop so one of the passengers can buy some fried shrimp. And it’s gotten dark.

As we approach the city limits, K asks for us to be dropped off in town so we can catch a taxi home.

We have plans to go to Negril tomorrow morning, but K and I haven’t really talked about what time we’re leaving. When we finally reach home, she’s so exhausted, she makes a cup of tea and goes straight to bed.

I guess we’ll figure it out when we get up tomorrow.

Meeting Mrs. Shearer

K drives down from the hillside, back into the chaos of downtown. She expertly manoeuvres past cars, around wayward pedestrians — and stops off at the hardware store run by one of my distant relatives.

The lady I’m about to meet is related to my mother’s father’s side of the family*, but everyone knows her as Mrs. Shearer.

She’s busy with the operations of her business — which I completely understand —  but she does make a little time for us.

She says she doesn’t have anything that say about my great-aunt Ellen – those are questions for Milda. (I don’t see it at the time, but my cousin says she makes a face at my mention of Milda’s name. Apparently Milda was quite the piece of work in her youthful days.)

Before leaving for my trip, my mother told me she thought that Mrs. Shearer would be glad to meet me and help. Now that I’m in her presence, I’m not so sure.

She makes an almost-dismissive comment (at least, to me) about “Canadians always asking about the family tree stuff”, and when I mention the gentleman who seems to have done the same thing I’m doing now, she says, “That’s him.” Apparently he’s due to come down to Jamaica for a family reunion (for more immediate members of his family) in August.

She tells me my great-grandfather was one of three brothers (her grandfather being one of the other brothers), and they were really close. (My mother has said the brothers had a bit of an unsavoury reputation in the community where they lived.)

They all had nicknames, so she isn’t sure of what their real names are. That doesn’t surprise me.  She makes a brief phone call to ask someone (I’m assuming another relative) if they can recall, but no dice.

Mrs. Shearer says she’ll try to consult the “book” (of family information, I presume) and get back to me. I would have to drop by and check with her.

Then it’s back on the road, going from errand to errand with K, before heading home for the evening.

It’s been a whirlwind past couple of days, and I’m still trying to process the bits and pieces I’ve learned. But it seems that this portion of my trip is done. We’ll see what else is in store.

*My great-grandfather (on my mother’s father’s side) and her grandfather (her mother’s father) were brothers … which I think makes me her second cousin, once removed? Genealogy experts, let me know if I’m remotely right. I had to look this up on the internet, and I’m still not sure.

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.

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.

 

Birmingham, Scarborough Style

Yesterday, I decided to go visit my cousin Shauna in Birmingham. It was a last-minute decision, as I only found out she was there, the day before I left Toronto. And man, what a voyage that was.

Left the house reasonably early and got myself down to London Euston relatively ahead of time.

After plunking down 35 GBP, along with a few more quid for a cookie, some water and crisps, I waited for an hour and boarded the train (luckily, the right one) on time.

Two and a half hours later, I arrived at Birmingham New Street Station. I called my cousin, who I thought would come and meet me. I ended up having to take a cab to her flat (cost: about 10 GBP).

Didn’t do much. Met her boyfriend, caught up with her a bit, ate dinner and watched TV and bootlegged DVDs. (Like the really bad ones where the DVD skips and you could see people’s silhouettes when they left their seats, and where the screen was partly obscured when someone got up in front of the camera or the bootlegger’s jacket got in the way). But it was very nice to see her again, nonetheless.

I stayed a little later than expected, leaving sometime after 8 p.m. Shauna’s boyfriend was more than kind enough to give me a lift back to the station.

I ended up just missing a train back into London and dropped another 35 GBP for a return ticket on the last train to Euston.

That trip itself went well. It was when I finally returned to the station that things got a bit difficult.

I thought – if the train pulled in a couple minutes early – I could dash down to the Underground and try and make my way as far westward as possible. I was doing brilliantly until I skidded to a stop in front of partially closed gates and a whiteboard which read, “UNDERGROUND CLOSED. SERVICE RESUMES AT 5:20 A.M.”

What. The. Fuh.

My friends over in Ealing were probably already asleep, and there was no way I was going to wake them and make them come down for me. I already was staying in their home and pretty much eating their food. How inconsiderate and humiliating would THAT be? It would be like New Year’s Eve 2000, all over again.

That left me with only one alternative, which people back home know I’m notorious for doing after a late night downtown – I was cabbing it home.

I went out to the main street beyond the station and tried flagging down a cab. Lousy luck. And silly me. It seemed everytime I tried walking farther down the street, someone would get a cab near the spot I just stood. After about 10 minutes of this (and panicked visions of spending the night sleeping on a park bench and potentially getting mugged or worse), I strode back into the station, asked the night staff about taxis, and got directed to a taxi park on the other side of the station.

About 40 minutes and almost 30 GBP later, I was back in Ealing. And soon I was out like a light.