Friday, June 27, 2014

Part 1 of 2: Finding Family And All That Comes With It

Growing up as an only child, far from family, I always knew that they were out there, the aunts, uncles, and cousins who had scattered to the wind as the British Empire staggered under its own weight. My mother’s family had lived in Cornwall and Devon, the West Country, as they call it, of England for hundreds of years. True, some left for reasons that were too good to refuse, such as land grants or management positions early on, but it was not until a combination of factors, both environmental and economic, that most of my mother’s family finally left one of the most beautiful places in the world, the West Country of England.

My grandfather, at the age of twenty-one, in September of 1909, he left his home in Hayle, Cornwall, England. He boarded a ship in Southampton and sailed for New York, never to see England again. He was one of the last in the family to leave and within a decade, all but a handful of family members had either left England or passed away.

Of those who remained in the British Isles, most ended up migrating elsewhere, living far from their hereditary roots in the West Country. Many left for Wales early on, and others followed as the economy slowly crumbled. Large groups of family banded together and went north, to Lancashire and Yorkshire, while others flocked to London.

Like her father, my mother was separated from her family by thousands of miles. She and my father settled in Illinois, far from their families in Montana. I know that my mother missed having her family near, because, by the time that I arrived, she had been searching in Illinois and the surrounding states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and even Pennsylvania, for her missing cousins. She was always tracking her lost uncles and digging through old trunks looking for the yellowed, tattered remains of letters and newspaper clippings from her distant aunts.

As prim and proper as my mother was, in pursuit of her missing relatives, nothing stood in her way. She thought nothing of marching into engineering offices, and boldly inquiring after this one or that one. She made sure that I knew the family stories, telling them over and over so that I would remember who we wanted to find. I learned my geography by naming the places in the world where we knew that we had to have family.

The family that she was searching for went beyond her sister, her mother, and her elderly aunts and uncles that she already knew that were all living in Montana. What intrigued me most was that she knew that she still had close family living in England. and in exotic places such as Wales, Scotland, and even Australia. She told me that a huge number of her aunts and uncles had left England for Australia, not as prisoners, but much later, as settlers. Some had been what we would call today, “recruited,” for their mining skills and engineering knowledge and left to improve their lot. The Cornish, she told me, had been mining for thousands of years and knew more about it than any other people in the world. When gold and gems and other minerals were found in Australia, she explained, the Cornish were in huge demand and  that combined with the troubles in Britain, made her uncles decide to leave their beautiful home and travel shipboard for many months to Australia. My mother told me that they all had many children and as a child, I dreamed of meeting a dozen or more cousins in Australia and playing with them as kangaroos hopped by like puppies.

 At night, I would lie awake, imagining what my cousins in Australia were seeing above them, in that strange Australian night sky with all those constellations that we in the north, could not see. Someday, my mother promised, we would find them all. Sadly, for her, that was not to be.

My mother was hot on the trail of her cousins in Milwaukee when she suddenly fell ill in February of 1968. Her illness ripped through her body, robbing her of speech and movement almost immediately, which prevented her from telling me anything more about what she had learned. Sadly, by summer, having just turned forty-four years old, she was gone, and with her went most of her family knowledge.

I never stopped wondering, but as grew from a child into a teenager, I had no place to start, no money, and no time. I worked through college, married, and kept working.

Twenty years after my mother’s death, I picked up the search. By that time I had children of my own, a bit of time when the kids napped, and years of curiosity built up. I hounded the few cousins that I knew and also my aunt, my mother’s sister. Unfortunately, I learned that I already knew as much as they did. Their mother, my aunt, knew little more.

I am not one to give up easily. Periodically, I would call my aunt, long distance, and ask  questions. Once in a great while I would hit on the right question and it would trigger some old memory of hers, letting a few, small clues trickle out.

Finally, in 1996, with my children older and more independent, I began my search in earnest, digging through old photos and trying to coax more memories from my aunt, adamant that there had to be more. I learned a few names and details about things that I already knew, largely about the family in Montana, but little else and certainly nothing about family in Britain or all those in Australia. There had to be at over a dozen or more in Australia alone!

Years passed and the search continued. As time went on, the world grew closer together. Soon I found traces of cousins living in the United States and in Canada. I found a few cousins in England, then some wonderful ones in Wales, and the numbers started exploding as fast as data could travel. Then, it happened. I found one cousin, and then another in Australia! I began to follow names and "Floyd," the surname, was the one that turned up most. The number started slowly and then grew and grew. I had found almost ten in Australia by the night that my husband took me to see an Aussie folksinger that he had just heard of, by the name of Missy Higgins. I knew nothing about her but was grateful to leave my teenagers at home for a night and enjoy some music. We arrived and were in line when people started asking me odd questions, like if I was with the band? IPeople were whispering and pointing in our direction. We got inside and  before the opening act came on, people staring coming up to me and asking me, “Are you with Missy?” Stunned, I shook my head. I turned and asked my husband what he knew about her and he said that she was an Aussie, from Melbourne, and he liked her music a lot. Everything he knew was from what he had heard on the radio. The opener came on was wonderful and ended. In between acts, people - total strangers - sent drinks to our table. “This is getting a little weird,” we were saying, just as Missy came on stage. My husband stared for a moment, then whispered to me, “Do you have any cousins in Melbourne?” Staring at Missy, I think I just nodded. She looked so much like me that she could have been my daughter. She looked more like me than any of my three daughters. Who was she? Was she one of my cousins? She wasn't a Floyd, but that really didn't matter as cousins married and names changed... I went home that night and the Aussie search was on!

I still don’t know if Missy is my cousin or not, though the resemblance at the time was eerie. A couple of years later, at a concert where Missy mentioned between songs that her mother was in the audience, our entire table was sent round after round of drinks by her adoring, if incorrect, fans. Someday, if I do find out that Missy is one of my Aussie cousins, I will have to buy her mom several rounds of drinks. I owe her that much.

What I did learn from the post-Missy concert is that I do not have a mere dozen or so cousins in  Melbourne, or in all of Australia, but many times that. Little did I know when I started this genealogical journey, that what I thought was “dozen or more” cousins in Australia, has grown into the hundreds, and will likely total over a thousand when I finally track them all down. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would come to know so many of them and care so deeply for people thousands of miles away, but I do. Most of all, I never knew, nor even dreamed that we would become such close friends, as we are today. Never did I imagine that it would be so easy to become part of their lives and they of mine, while living five or seven or even nine thousand miles away and that such things could be, would be, so...normal.

How I wish my mother could have lived long enough to experience this age of global friendship.

But, with every door you open, every experience you wrap yourself in, the more you feel for those who are close to you. Their pain becomes yours; their stories weave themselves into your life. This becomes more true when you share the same roots, the same family ties, and now, our daily experiences. Along the way, my long-lost, now-found, cousins and I have shared each other’s lives, both good and bad. We have bolstered one another as if we have always known each other and it has extended to our children. Now, their kids come to visit us, or as they grow into adulthood, they visit our kids, just like normal families who never were parted. I visit and watch their kids play soccer while my children are friends and even godparents to their almost-long-lost, cousin’s baby. The connections are remade, but in that, we have opened ourselves up to new tales, old stories, and even yes, unexpected situations.

Tomorrow, Part 2: June 28th Facing Genealogy’s Least Expected Situation