Monday, September 5, 2016

How To Get It Wrong

Looking for my grandmother's father.

About ten years ago, I had my sights set on a particular fellow who was the youngest son in a family where an older brother married one of my great-great grandmother's half sisters. It seemed quite likely that the son of the right name and age was the one who got my great-great grandmother's daughter pregnant. Obviously these two families were at least connected through that one marriage and the younger children could have come in contact through some other family events. Obvious. Done deal. Even though I couldn't find anything else about him except when he was born.

My 94 year old aunt had given me his name and the following is the rest of the story, told repeatedly and consistently over the last 10 years, even though she has Alzheimer's. She doesn't remember what she said 10 seconds ago but this story has never changed.

1900: My great-grandmother did not marry because the fellow she expected to marry got another girl pregnant and married her instead because her father had a shotgun. ONCE she said, "probably" had a shotgun. (I noticed for the first time when I was reviewing my notes the other day.)

1920's: When she was "little" she went to visit him "many times".
He had a nice house in town.
He was a nice looking man, always dressed neatly in a shirt and tie.
A pretty girl (younger than my grandmother) always let them in and then disappeared.
He was an office-worker or something; he was not a farmer.

My mother immediately discounted the idea that he wasn't a farmer. How would she know? She was just a little kid. He could have cleaned up before the visits and put on a tie.

I discounted the idea that he lived in town. Who knows where he actually lived. He could have been using a house that belonged to someone else. What does "nice house" mean anyway? I think I live in a nice house. The Queen of England would consider it a hovel.

Instead, I fixated on his marriage. Based on when my grandmother was born, and the detail that the other girl's father had a shotgun, I figured he must have gotten married late 1899 or early 1900.

I got a list of all males of that name married in that county during that time period. The fellow described at the top of the page didn't fit the time-frame so I threw him out.

There was only one who did. Married in early 1900. Perfect. I paid the local historical society to find a living descendant, paid for his DNA test, wrote many emails, stayed awake at night excitedly combing through every detail of how things must have happened. And then watched the whole thing fall apart.

He did not live in town, he was a farmer, his photo did not bear any particular resemblance to my family with the exception of one daughter who could have looked like my grandmother. Sort of. Maybe. Still undaunted I began conjecturing. Maybe they had clandestine meetings at a friend's place in town? Maybe that's why someone else answered the door? Maybe it was just the photographic light that day and if he wasn't wearing a hat he would look more like HIM?

My mother sent the photo to my aunt, twice, but it never connected because the letter would arrive one day, my mother would phone her a week later and my aunt wouldn't remember where she put the letter. Chewing my toenails off over here ...

Two more years go by. I'm sitting on my couch the other day thinking, Let's go back to the beginning.

What did my aunt actually SAY? What does my aunt actually KNOW from her own direct experience? Not the part she heard third or fourth or fifth hand 20+ years after the fact. OK, turf out the part about the other girl and the father with the shotgun. Whew. Now, I don't know when he got married to someone else or if he ever did.

Back to the original list. GOT HIM. The only one who lived in town, had a nice house ... I scrolled backwards and forwards through the census records looking at house values, alternating with street view in Google Maps ... and he was a businessman, (hence the shirt and tie and neat appearance) the only one not a farmer. His youngest child was a daughter who was a teenager when my grandmother was in her mid to late 20's; 16 when my grandmother was 27. That would register in a child's mind as "younger" whereas the difference between 22 and 27 probably wouldn't.

Guess who this guy is? The one described at the top of the page!  He did get another girl pregnant, when my grandmother was 3 years old, and married her a year and a half later. So there probably was no father with a shotgun.

All I need now is a photograph.