Following A Hunch …

Several days before I left for Connecticut, I paid a visit to a Toronto-based writer (and retired university professor), in hopes she might help me with a possible clue in what happened to my great-aunt Ellen.

Confused? Allow me to explain.

The writer is the granddaughter of my mother’s landlady in the early-to-mid 1970s. (She passed away 35 years ago.) It was that landlady who once told my mother a story related to her life when she first came to Canada.

The anecdote goes something like this:

This woman – who I’ll call Mrs. S. – arrived in 1936 (from what is now western Ukraine, but at the time, was part of Poland) with her two daughters, to join her husband, who came here a handful of years previously.

Shortly after arriving, she found a job working in a shirt factory, cutting and sewing shirts.*

According to what my mother told me, Mrs. S. didn’t know a single word of English, yet learned how to cut and sew the shirts, thanks to a black woman who worked in the factory. Using hand gestures, the woman showed Mrs. S. what to do. And my mother seems to remember Mrs. S. telling her this woman’s name: Ellen. (My mother, of course, thought her aunt’s name was Helen, so she wondered about it, but wrote it off.)

This story may very well be the biggest of coincidences. But I thought it was worth trying to follow this thread to its end.

An initial Internet search led me to a book Mrs. S’s granddaughter wrote over 15 years ago, about her own search to understand her family’s history, and to understand the hardships they endured. I checked a copy of the book out of the library — initially to see if there was possibly any reference to this story told to my mother so long ago.

I found nothing specifically related to this mystery woman who helped Mrs. S. But I read the book from cover to cover, and it gave me a greater understanding of, and admiration for, Mrs. S and that side of the family.

I then tracked down the writer – who, as it turns out, lives here in Toronto – and paid her a visit. She was incredibly lovely, and we spoke about my mom’s time living in her grandmother’s house, but also about her late mother and aunt. Eventually, I told her about this decades-old story her grandmother told my mother, and asked if she’d ever heard this story, or whether her mother or aunt had mentioned it.

She wasn’t familiar with the story, but she thought if there was anyone who might know — or remember the name of the factory where Mrs S. worked, at the very least — it would be her aunt. Long retired from the medical profession, she’s now 89, and while suffering from dementia, apparently is still quite sharp when it comes to remembering the past.

So, there is where things rest at the moment. I’ll be getting in touch with the writer to see if she’s been in touch with her aunt, and if are any more shreds of possibility to pursue. Fingers crossed.

 

 

*I am going to double-check this fact, to make sure I’ve recalled this correctly.

 

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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.