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