If you have been following this blog or my Facebook page for more than five minutes, you will know that I am crazy about family history, which is pretty easy on the Cummings/Mayer side because their lives have been heavily documented. Still, I can only go as far back as my maternal great-great grandparents: Isaac and Leah Komiensky (later Kaminsky, and then Cummings), and Jacob and Sarah Meier (later Myer, and then Mayer).
Sarah Meltzer Mayer.
I have photographs of all of their headstones, and all but one are in the Jewish cemetery in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. In life, though, I only have a couple of precious photos of Jacob and Sarah, but absolutely none of Leah and Isaac. If I did, I would pore over every detail and do the usual inventory of facial features: what do we share – our nose, eyes, an expression?
For the descendants of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian Jews who fled the violent and deadly pogroms of the late 1800s, a lack of official state information is unfortunately the norm. During these brutal times synagogues were also torched and generations of records – births, deaths, and marriages – perished in the flames or were destroyed by other means.
When bestselling author Scott Eyman was researching ‘Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer’, his biography about my great uncle, he sent a Russian-speaking researcher to Russia and Ukraine to see what she could unearth. Basically, she came back empty-handed.
So, much of what we know officially about my maternal family line comes from the forms they completed in the New World, when boarding a ship, docking in Europe, flowing through Ellis Island in New York. There is another official paper trail when they finally settled in Saint John, Canada, and again, decades later in the U.S., when they became naturalized Americans. Of course, they then lived very public lives so there are also plenty of news reports, feature articles, books and documentaries to draw from.
My father’s side of the family has been far more challenging. My dad left my mother and I shortly after I was born and it would be nearly thirty years before I would be reunited with any of his family, so I had precious little information. All I had been told was that his mother’s father (my great-grandfather) was a Tara Humara Indian from the high mountains of northern Mexico. His last name was Herrera. I knew nothing about his mother’s mother (my great-grandmother), not even her name, and absolutely nothing about my dad’s father and his family. Other than Mexico, there were possible family connections in New Mexico, Colorado and California, but trying to find someone with a fairly common Hispanic last name in these states is the proverbial needle in a haystack.
With my grandmother, Mitzi Cummings Fielding.
By the time I was in my early teens, the urge to find my father and his family became overwhelming. Just on a physical level I knew I didn’t fit in. I was tall and skinny, all knees and elbows, with dark eyes and hair, but fair skin. My mother was a beautiful redhead with green eyes and freckles, and my stepfather’s family were short and stout. So who and where were my people?
After school, when I was alone, or sometimes late at night, I would sit on the hallway floor with the phone in my lap and a notepad and pen next to me and call ‘Information’. When the operator answered (remember that?) I would give my father’s name or his mother’s or sister’s, and then a fake address (if I had an address I wouldn’t be doing this!).
The answer, day after day, night after night, was always: “Sorry, no one by that name at that address.” If I wasn’t immediately hung up on, I would beg for a phone number for anyone with the same last name as my father’s. And I called them all. It was pathetic.
Often, people wanted to be of help but they just couldn’t change the fact they weren’t related. “Sorry, Honey.” I remember one older lady saying. “You sound like a nice girl and I’d love you to be my granddaughter, but your people aren’t my people.” Story of my life, I thought.
Canberra is Australia’s capitol city and is several hours south of Sydney.
I searched for years, until I moved to New York at 19, and three years later I married an Australian, posted there by the Australian government. Shortly after our marriage we moved to Canberra, Australia’s capitol city and my husband’s hometown. In 1988, calling the U.S., much less obsessively compulsively calling Information, was too difficult and costly a habit to have for a young couple just starting out.
In my late 20s, now a mother of a three-year-old daughter, serendipity took pity on me and tapped me on the shoulder. Over coffee and cake, my new neighbour told me about her amazing daughter-in-law, Jane (not her real name), who had been seconded from our city’s police force to Interpol. You would think that I would’ve yelled with joy at that moment, spraying cake crumbs gratefully all over my host, but it wasn’t until I was driving around a few weeks later that the penny dropped. Interpol! Hang on! She could help me find my dad!
After spilling the beans about my search to my neighbour she gave me Jane’s number at work. Again, I pitched my life story and was relieved when she agreed to help, but all I had to offer were the only three facts I knew about my biological father: his name, his date of birth, and his height. Jane assured me, when you work for Interpol, or any police force, those three facts are an excellent starting point.
Of course, in my mind, I imagined Jane would immediately punch this information into some database and voila! my father would be found. In fact, I expected to hear from her the next day – at the latest. So I watched my phone like a crazy person afraid to miss her call, but days, weeks, and months passed with no contact from her. Eventually, I forgot all about it. I was a busy young mother juggling home and work, with no time to think about those who were missing from my life.
Over a year later, Jane finally called me with a hit: an individual with my father’s particulars had been found in Washington State. I immediately pulled over to the side of the road. OK, I swerved to the side of the road. My heart was beating so hard I was sure she could hear it over the phone. After a deep breath, I asked as casually as I could: “What now?” Continue Reading »