The Woman Who Died More Than Once (Updated)

For a few reasons, I’m thinking about relatives I’ve never met. This post is an updated version of a post from 2015 about my grandmother, Mary Louise Romine.

In 1951, my father was 7 years old and his brother and sister, the twins, were 6. They were living in Vassar, Michigan, and then Millington. Mary Lou worked as a cook in a restaurant; their father Ralph worked as a bartender. They both drank a lot.

Because of their work schedules, Mary Lou had family friends take care of them. A little babysitting became a lot of babysitting. Those friends got tired of taking care of them, so the kids were shipped to their Aunt Eva’s house. She took care of them until one day Ralph picked them up and took them for ice cream at Harriman’s Dairy. After that, he dropped them off at the juvenile home. Most likely it was a legal arrangement the kids weren’t aware of.

Eventually, social workers placed the kids in three different houses full of strangers: foster families. I imagine on his third or fourth night in the new house my dad realized his parents weren’t coming back for him. That was Mary Lou’s first death.

In 1983 or so, a call from a stranger marked Mary Lou’s second death. It went something like this:

“This is [my dad’s] Aunt Loretta,” a woman said by way of a greeting. “I’m calling to tell him his mother is sick with cancer and is asking for him. She doesn’t have much time left.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, but where was she all the time [my dad] wanted and needed her?” my mom said. Mom had known Dad since high school, so she knew the family history.

“Oh, I don’t know nothing about that! Will you tell him?”

Mom agreed. Later, Dad said he hadn’t known he’d had an Aunt Loretta. From then on, Dad believed his mother was gone. Mary Lou’s second death.

In 1989, another phone call. No one remembers who told him she had died, either his half-sister Delana or her daughter. It went something like this:

“Hello, this is your sister/niece.”

“What can I do for you?”

“I thought you should know your mother died last night.”

“Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry for the people who care for her, but I am not one of them. Goodbye.”

In 2013, I connected with a relative of his sister and niece on Facebook. We got together for dinner one night. I was nervous; she was the first relative on that side of my family I had ever met. I wanted it to go well. I wanted her to answer questions I’ve had simply with her presence. At some point during dinner, I started describing my dad, her grand-uncle, but she stopped me mid-sentence. She told me she’d met my dad at a wake, Dad’s mother’s, in 1989. I didn’t know he’d gone to her funeral.

My mind reeled to think what I was doing that day. I would have been 15, preoccupied by marching band practices and pool parties at friends’ houses. Too young to understand his need to leave his past alone, to give his sons a less complicated family life.

I know facts about my grandmother now. I know Mary Lou was born in Parma, Missouri, in 1918. She was the oldest daughter of Clayton Romine and Elizabeth Lewis. She married Del Smith in Missouri in 1934 and had three children. She moved to Flint, Michigan, sometime around 1940 and eventually became the head cook of Higgins Restaurant on Corunna Road. She had three more children with my grandfather, Ralph James. She was with Rollie Fletcher and James Harvey as well. She died on November 18, 1989, near Otisville, Michigan, and she was buried near Clio.

From r to l: Mary Lou, Delana Smith, Nathaniel Lewis, Donna Smith, child, Elizabeth Lewis, child

I’ve been given pictures of her. She is the woman on the far left of the picture in the polka dot dress. She is the woman who died not twice, but three times. She is the woman who profoundly hurt my father, but she is also the woman who directly shaped my father’s attitude toward his own family, made him want the opposite of what he had. She is a key reason I had a stable and loving childhood, and for that I begrudgingly thank her.

 

 

 

 

Box No. 14

When asked to name her brother’s mother, my great-grand aunt Amnier Craig gave the person filling out the death certificate her own mother’s name.

Albert Clayton Romine death certificate, personal records

Nothing earth-shattering there, right?

But Box #14 took me several years to unravel. And what’s more frustrating is the answer was in front of me all along.

Here’s the family in the 1910 Census.

Parma, New Madrid, Missouri; p. 11A; dwelling 211; family 222

I see the clues in this entry now, but when I first came upon it I was new to genealogy. Everything here seemed to check out. Luela had six children born to her, and six children were listed: Arrah, Iva, something very loopy and small that I know now is Amnier (clearly the census taker heard it spoken and had no idea how to write it), Lobr, Dela, Clyton, who I knew was Albert Clayton Romine, my great-grandfather. Six clearly listed, if oddly named, children. “Roborn,” the crossed out last name next to “Lobr,” appeared to me to be a mistake. The number 4 in Luela’s row indicating only four of her children were still living, the strange order of the children’s names, that is, younger over older, and the three children listed who were older than the marriage hadn’t register to me. Clearly, Luella Cunningham was my great-grandmother.

Looking further, I couldn’t find a marriage record for Edward and Luella, but I did find another.

Missouri, US Marriage records, 1805-2002, Stoddard County, accessed on Ancestry

In 1894, E. T. Romine (Edward Tennessee Romine) married Fannie F. Gun in Stoddard County, Missouri, the county just north of Parma. This must be them.

  • The date was appropriately timed before the first child’s birth
  • The location was right
  • The names were close: “Gun” could be a mishearing of Cunningham
  • Fannie was a sort of catch-all nickname for several women’s names – Why not Luella?

I found the family in the 1900 Census.

Elk Twp, Stoddard, Missouri; p. B; dwelling 12; family 12

Look at that. The ages for Fannie and Luela are the same: born in 1875. One was born in Arkansas and the other Illinois, true, but the birth states for her parents are very similar: Illinois/Tennessee and Tennessee/Illinois. Not sure why the child “Lobr” wasn’t with them here; she should have been 7 years old. Oh well. Maybe she was staying with granny when the census taker came.

I continued collecting censuses for the Romines and moved on.

Years passed. One day while researching Edward Romine’s parents, I looked at the first page of this same township in the 1900 census.

Elk Twp, Stoddard, Missouri; p. 1; dwelling 2, 8, 9; family 2, 8, 9

The top lines are Edward’s parents, Samuel Romine and Sisley Scruggs Romine. The families highlighted at the bottom have the last name Grace. In the marriage license record above Fannie’s last name had been indexed as “Gran,” so this family stood out. I looked a little into Ambrose and Rachel’s story.

Anna Precinct, Union, Illinois; p. 33, dwelling 472, family 546

In the 1880 census, I learned that Ambrose Grace and Rachel Boyt Grace had a daughter named Fanny who was born in 1875. Her parents’ states of birth matched those listed on the 1900 census, which was the only other document I could find of her besides her marriage license to Edward.

I went back to that 1910 census and saw that “Lobr” was born before “Fannie/Luela” had married Edward, which caused a search for Romine and “Roborn,” which was Lobr’s last name crossed out.

Missouri, US Marriage records, 1805-2002, Stoddard County, accessed on Ancestry

In September 1901, an E. F. Romine married an L. E. Rayborn in Stoddard County. All signs were pointing to Fannie and Luella being two different people, and that Fannie Grace Romine was my great-grandmother.

I searched and searched for more information on Fannie, but the two censuses and the marriage record appear to be all there is.

Given that Fannie falls off the record after 1900, Edward and Luela marry less than a year later, and Amnier listed Luela as Clayton’s mother all those years later, I have to believe that Fannie died between the 1900 census and Edward’s second marriage. She is the ancestor I am most curious about because I have the least information about her. Who would Clayton name as his mother? Did he and his sister remember Fannie, if she was indeed their mother? Did they have any relationship with the Grace family?

I got a kind of answer when I ordered Clayton’s application for social security.

SSDI Application obtained from the National Archives via FOIA, personal records

A Resurrection

A while back, I plugged in a simple family tree on the genealogy website MyHeritage and signed up for their notification emails. I like that, even though I’m not a paying member, the emails update me on records the site has found for my ancestors.

Here’s a recent one I received showing a hit on a 2nd great-granduncle, Thomas Grace:

As you can see, this newspaper hit is for an article that ran in Prescott, Arizona, but I know that Thomas Grace lived near Parma, Missouri, all his life. Why would a Missouri man’s obituary run in an Arizona newspaper?

Since I’m not a member of My Heritage, I searched on the internet and found free issues of the Prescott Evening Courier on Google Newspapers.

This article is from the November 12, 1938, edition of the newspaper.

Turns out Tommy is mentioned because his daughter, Trulia Grace Head (that’s a whopper of a name, right?), and his brother Charles were living in Prescott at the time.

This standard funeral notice is an ASTOUNDING find for me because it resurrected an ancestor that I had presumed dead.

My 2nd great-grandmother is Fanny Grace. She appears with my great-grandfather in the 1900 census. But in the 1910 census, she disappears.

Her husband, Edward Romine, had remarried in 1901. In most of her son Albert Clayton’s records, Edward’s second wife is listed as his mother. So, I concluded that Fannie had passed away.

But, Nate, no one named Fanny is listed in this obituary.

True. But listed in the survivors is a sister named Mary Price. The thing is, based on Fannie and Thomas’s father’s military records, Thomas only had one sister. Fannie.

So I believe Mary and Fannie are the same person. Perhaps my great-grandmother’s full name was Mary Frances Grace.

There are a few things I can do now that I know Thomas had a sister living in 1938. I can search for Mary Prices, which you know I already tried. There’s only one Mary Price in Nevada, Missouri, in the 1940 census, and I’ve proven she isn’t my gal.

I can try to find divorce records from around 1900 from the Parma area now that I know Fannie didn’t die. I can check the obituaries of Fanny’s siblings who passed after Tommy to see if she is listed and where she is living. I can check the Missouri Vital Records website to see if any Mary Prices are my 2nd great-grandmother.

Do you have any other suggestions? I would love to hear them!

Sources for this entry will appear here shortly.

My Longest-Living Ancestor

Nathaniel Lewis 97 birthdayTRANSCRIPT from The Flint Journal (Flint, Michigan), 6 Jan 1963, p. D7:
Still ‘Farming’
Flint Man Marks 97th Birthday

Nathaniel Lewis, who is 97 today, has been a farmer all his life. Last summer he cultivated a small plot of corn and berries.

Lewis lives with his daughter, Mrs. Nora Miley, at 1482 Alberta St. He was born on a farm near Mount Vernon, Ind. and has lived in Flint since 1951.

He has a son, Nathaniel Jr., Parma, Mo.; five other daughters, Mrs. Mattie Hicks, Flint, Mrs. Dora Alley and Mrs. Alice Spanick, both of Dearborn, Mrs. Lillian Myrick, Dexter, Mo., and Mrs. Elizabeth Zint, Parma; 18 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren, and six great-great-grandchildren.

***

I am one of Nathaniel Lewis’s many great-great-grandchildren born after he passed away in 1964 at age 98. Our common first name is a coincidence; my parents didn’t know there were Nathaniels in the family when they named me.

Writing this for Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors. This week’s prompt was “longevity.”

The Known and the Unknown

When I started my family research in 2009, it was all lopsided. My mother’s family had annual reunions and shared churches and a huge piece of paper with all of our names on it in trim little boxes. I remember one year at the family reunion someone had tacked up the family tree on a wall of the church’s banquet room. Photos of most of the family were taped up next to their entry on the tree. I watched as my relatives would bring their son or granddaughter to the chart and show them the box in which their name was written and then trace their branch up the chart. Inevitably, they would turn to the room, and the older person would point at various people the child knew and tell them their relationship.

“That’s your great-aunt Margaret, Nicky. She’s your papa’s sister. See her over in the flowered dress talking to daddy?”

It was nice. If anyone felt insecure about their place in the family, they could look to the large tree drawn on the wall and know that they belong. It felt as if the ties between us were tangled beneath the grid of tables filling the room.

Wilma and Bernice Wilson, date and location unknown
The author’s maternal grandmother (right) with her sister, 1930s

My favorite photos of them are of when they were young. Seeing my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my parents before kids and divorces and funerals. All of the lifetimes they had before I knew them.

That was my mother’s side. The known side. My father’s side was hazier.

Dad grew up in foster care from age 8. He knew his brother, sister, half-sisters and half-brother, parents, aunts, and uncles lived in town, but he also knew he barely spoke to any of them, let alone lived with them. He knew his mother’s last name because it was written on his birth certificate. (We would later discover that last name was incorrect.) There were no photographs of these people, no stories. Occasionally Dad would mention something about his childhood—how his mom made the best blackberry cobbler or how the horses at the job he held in high school always seemed to buck when it was his turn to clean their stables, but he never lingered long in those memories.

Mary Lou
The author’s paternal grandmother, c. 1940s

I started researching his family with very little to go on. The first names of his mother and siblings. Found out dad had close family members living all around where he grew up. Found out I had deep roots in two unfamiliar states: Iowa and Missouri. I was lucky there was a huge network of researchers on that side of my family who posted to Ancestry. It didn’t take long for me to discover photos of my grandparents.

That first glimpse was a lightning strike. There was no doubt they were family. Seeing their familiar faces was like meeting ghosts who had haunted my childhood home. I even found a photograph of my dad as a boy. In all the shuffling around of his childhood, he hadn’t held onto his keepsakes.

These are my favorite photos of my dad’s side. The unknown side. That light I’d felt when I’d seen my grandparents’ faces and recognized my dad, my brothers, myself in them is what keeps me researching my family tree.

(The featured photo of this post is my maternal grandfather (in the hat) with his younger brothers, c. 1918.)

Writing for Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors.

Henry Ford’s Brain

It seems like at the end of every episode of Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are? each guest tells the host or the person holding the camera that they have a different sense of themselves after finding out they are Arcadian or they are related to William the Conqueror. It’s my favorite part of the show because I came to those same conclusions, although there were no cameras to capture it. I felt that same inner light when I learned who my people were and how I got here. A certain kind of relief comes with the knowledge that who you are isn’t entirely your responsibility, that the chapter you are writing of your life isn’t the first in the book.

I definitely started my own research looking for my place, trying to find out where I belonged, and I quickly learned that I owe my entire existence to Henry Ford. Before the auto industry, my foreparents were scattered in Upstate New York, Ontario, the boot-heel of Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

My New York relatives, the Wilsons, were the first to settle near Flint. They were farmers who were pushed out of the Rochester, New York, area due to a population boom and a land shortage. Thomas Wilson moved his family to New Lothrop, Michigan, using the money he received fighting and being injured in the Civil War. By 1920, all of his grandsons were employed in the factories or in auto-related businesses in Flint.

The Harburns, my Canadian family, immigrated to Flint in 1919. Having been farmers of flowers in Hensall, Ontario, they moved to Flint to become the official florists of the Ford Motor Company. It was just after Teddy Roosevelt and his conservationist movement took hold in the United States. The auto industry was getting flak from residents of the city for polluting the Flint River. Ford Motor Company hired my family to refute the conservationists’ claims. The Harburns were given a deal on a small white house just a little downriver from a car plant and grew the flowers for the company’s corporate events. The company hoped to prove the purity of the river with my family’s success. Unfortunately, it worked. Growing up, I only associate that river with stink. Swimming there was always considered a feat of daring; eating fish from there was downright nuts.

My Missouri folks, the Romines, had been struggling for decades to make a living by farming near Parma and Malden. It was the Depression when my 2nd great-grandfather moved up to Flint because of Ford’s promise of jobs. Once my 2nd great-grandfather was established, my great-grandfather followed, leaving behind his young family and marrying his second wife. Abandoned by her father, my grandmother left her own family in Missouri to find her dad. This abandonment was the end (thankfully!) of a long pattern in the Romine line.

The Jameses had been living in Council Bluffs, Iowa, since the 1870s. All but two of the eight siblings stayed there. My grandfather followed his older sister to Flint in 1941 after going through a bitter divorce and being fired from his job as county engineer in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). His sister owned several bars in Flint, and he was made a bartender in one of them. That’s how he met my grandmother, who worked as a cook in a restaurant that catered mostly to factory workers.

Henry Ford. As far as I know, I have no relation to him, but he was absolutely responsible for putting my grandparents in the same place at the same time. Before learning this, I’d never thought twice about cars or the role the grubby factories we passed along the highway played in the history of my family and virtually every other family near me.

Writing this for Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors.

Photo is of my grandmother, Bernice Wilson, posing in front of the family car c. 1932.

The Woman Who Died More Than Once

If my father heard me tell you that his mother died twice, he’d rock back on his heels, dip his chin so the tip of his cotton swab beard glanced off his sternum, and declare that she died all of three times. He would not elaborate. As you can imagine, these stories are not pleasant to recall; he rarely brings his mother up in conversation. Growing up, I don’t remember ever hearing her name.

Our differing sums can be attributed to absence. I forget about the first time my grandmother died because it happened before I was born. Unfortunately, all of this means you must rely on me to tell you stories of which I only hold shards. I will do my best.

In 1951 my father was 7 years old and his brother and sister, the twins, were 6. They were sitting or playing or napping in a house across town from the courtroom in which my grandparents slouched. A stoic judge restated the charges of The State of Michigan v. James and Romine, which I imagine includes public nuisance and several counts of child neglect. The case ended with the word guilty and three swift knocks of a gavel. Later in the week, a social worker came to the house, gathered the three children’s belongings, and drove them to three different houses full of strangers: foster families. And on his third or fourth night in the new house when my dad was lonely and confused and crying, his foster mother peeked into the room and told him that she was all he had, his mother would not be back. That was her first death.

The other deaths begin with phone calls placed to my father from strangers claiming to be relatives. The first one happened in 1983 and went something like this:

“This is your niece. My name is Karen*.”

“What can I do for you, Karen?”

“I thought you should know your mother has cancer. They caught it late. Things aren’t looking too good.”

“Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry for the people who care for her, but I do not count myself among them. Goodbye.” Dad hung up believing that was that.

The second phone call was less abrupt. It happened in the summer of 1989.

“This is your Aunt Loretta,” a woman said by way of a greeting.

“I didn’t know I had an Aunt Loretta.”

“Yes, well, this is her. Your mother is sick and she’s asking for you. She doesn’t have much time left.”

“You must be mistaken. My mother died years ago.”

“No. She’s had cancer before, a couple of times in fact. But she never let it kill her until now. Will you come?”

“I’m sorry, but there has been a mistake because my mother has never once wanted to see me.”

“Well, there’s nothing I can do to change that, but I’m telling you now that your mother is dying and she wants to see you.”

Dad didn’t go.

Two years ago, I connected with Karen’s daughter on Facebook. We got together for dinner one night. I was nervous; she was the first relative on that side of my family I had ever met. I wanted it to go well. I wanted her to answer questions I’ve had simply with her presence. At some point, I started describing my dad, her grand-uncle, but she stopped me mid-sentence. She told me she’d met my dad at a wake, Dad’s mother’s, in 1989. He never told us he’d gone.

My mind reeled to think what I was doing that day. I would have been 15, preoccupied by marching band practices and pool parties at friends’ houses. But even if I hadn’t been a self-absorbed teenager I still would not have known of his loss. He kept his family secrets. I resented his attitude then; I always felt like he was withholding himself. Now I understand that it was protection. It was my father’s determination to leave his past behind, to give his sons a less complicated family life.

I know facts about my grandmother now. I know her name was Mary Louise Romine. She was born in Parma, Missouri, in 1918. She was the oldest daughter of Clayton Romine and Elizabeth Lewis. She moved to Flint, Michigan, sometime around 1940 and eventually became the head cook of Higgins Restaurant on Corunna Road. She died on November 18, 1989, near Otisville, Michigan. I’ve been given pictures of her. She is the woman on the far left of the picture in the polka dot dress.

She is the woman who died not twice, but three times. She is the woman who profoundly hurt my father, but she is also the woman who directly shaped my father’s attitude toward his own family, made him want the opposite of what he had. She is a key reason I had a stable and loving childhood, and for that I begrudgingly thank her.

*names of living people are changed