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).
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.
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 a very different body type. 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.
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 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! She could help me find my dad!
I got the courage up to tell my neighbour all about my search and asked for Jane’s number. She gave it to me without hesitation, and sent me off with a good luck hug. I called Jane, it took several attempts just to dial her number, and I pitched my life story. I was so 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 that when you work for Interpol, 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?”
Jane suggested I call the Washington State Police. That night, with my daughter snug in bed, I sat up and waited a few more hours until the time difference worked with Seattle office hours. Again, I was alone with just a phone in a quiet house and the burden of a hope so fragile it could easily dissolve into thin air.
Exactly as the second hand tick ticked to 9am in Seattle, I called a non-emergency number for the Washington State Police (believe me, if I could’ve justified calling 911, I would’ve called that instead). My phone call was answered by a young female state trooper, and once again I told my story: I’ve been looking for my father since I was a kid; it’s been nearly 30 years since I’ve seen him; I live in Australia so it’s impossible to search on my own; please, can you help me…?
I could hear her typing as I spoke. When finally I took a breath, she calmly said she had my father’s address in Seattle on the screen right in front her.
“Wow! Great! What’s his address?” That was easy!
In the beat that followed I saw my 14-year-old self all those years ago, sitting hunched over on the floor, gripping the phone with one hand, the other poised with the pen over the notepad. I hardly breathed. This. Is. It.
“Ma’am, due to privacy laws, I can’t share these details with you.”
I didn’t see that one coming… Of course, I should have – it is only reasonable that random people cannot simply phone a police department and get anyone’s address. No matter how compelling their story is.
I started babbling again. The young trooper cut through and offered to give me the names of three private detectives. I grabbed my pen and scribbled down their names and numbers. Remember, this was pre-internet and I lived on the other side of the world and upside down in Australia. Using the services of a local private detective made a lot of sense. I wondered why I hadn’t considered that before.
As soon as I hung up I called the first phone number on the list. The man listened for a few seconds and then jumped in: “Honey, wire me $5,000 U.S. and I’ll find him.” Nope.
I called the next one on the list and repeated my story – I was getting good at this. The second guy’s price was $2,500. Better, but still ridiculous. Next.
I called the third and final name on my list, and immediately launched into my spiel. I was like a call center employee with a unique, one-time offer. There was a pause, and for a moment I thought I lost him and would have to dial again.
“Alicia, this is going to cost you 250 bucks, and if I don’t find your dad you’re gonna know why. Deal?” Deal!
We made payment arrangements and I crossed fingers and toes. If he was a scam artist, well, I had only lost 5% of what the first guy was going to charge me.
Ten days later, very late at night, he finally called back. I leapt off the couch like I’d just received an electric shock. My toddler daughter was sound asleep in bed and I had been watching some crappy re-runs with the TV turned down low. I got my act together and ran as quietly as I could to the closest phone in the kitchen. All I could think was: “Oh no! Who’s dead?”
The first words out of the detective’s mouth didn’t help. “Are you sitting down? Is someone with you?”
I lied on both counts. Sadly, my husband and I had separated just a few weeks earlier and he had temporarily moved into his mother’s house. I stood holding the phone in the dark, just the light from the TV flickering from the living room. I was completely at the mercy of whatever the next few seconds held.
The detective told me that everything he learnt about my father he found in court records. A lot of court records. It was bad. Very bad. There had also been a huge tragedy. And there was more… A lot more. Oh. My. God.
“Alicia? You there?”
I heard me answer him in a tiny, distant voice.
He continued. “Instead of contacting your dad, I want you to call his in-laws in Oregon City. They’re grandparents of some of your siblings. Real nice people, too.”
Siblings? Somehow I had not given siblings much thought.
“And then you can call everyone else.”
“Your dad had many wives, many relationships, and many children.”
I couldn’t talk.
Again, this tiny voice spoke for me while my actual mind and body were somewhere else, in total shock. “Uh, I think so.”
The detective gave me the phone numbers of my dad’s ex in-laws (grandparents of a brother and a sister), as well as the two mothers of three more siblings (two more brothers and another sister), all of whom lived in Seattle, and finally, my grandmother, who lived in California.
By then I actually was sitting — on the kitchen floor. I had started the night as the oldest of two daughters. I was now the older sister of three brothers and three sisters. Gee, where’s Oprah when you need her?
The detective and I hung up. I let go of the phone, which bungied quietly up and down against the kitchen wall, and then dangled near my ear. Beep… Beep… Beep…
When I finally stood up again, my legs were like spaghetti and I was shaking. I leant against the countertop to steady myself and try to think one clear thought. What do I do? It was very late and I had work the next day, not to mention a toddler whose new thing was waking up at the crack of dawn, but there was no way I would be able to sleep. If I climbed into bed I would surely end up staring at the ceiling for hours. Although, maybe I could count all my new siblings and my dad’s women to help me pass out…
Instead, I grabbed the handset and began to dial the in-laws’ phone number in Oregon, and almost immediately hung up and dialled Information again, just like the old days.
“Hello, I’d like the number for Connie M—-. Her address is —–, in —–.” I repeated the information about my grandmother the detective had just given me, the first real facts about a family member – other than my father’s name, height, and birth date – I had ever had.
Within seconds the operator gave me my grandmother’s number, exactly as the detective had said. To this day I’m not entirely sure why I did that, except that perhaps I wanted confirmation that this was not some elaborate, insane story I had just heard from some random guy with an overactive imagination in Seattle. As it turned out, it was an insane story, but everything the detective told me would prove to be true. It would take years to come to grips with it.
That night I called everyone on the list: my siblings’ grandparents, the mothers, my grandmother. Prior to the detective calling, I knew none of them, but as I would discover, they all knew about me. I was a sad mystery, a lost child – a missing piece of an extended family made up of my father’s women and children.
In one of the phone calls I discovered that the two oldest siblings (younger than me by three and five years) had treasured a tiny photo of me as a little child. How they came to have that photo would break my heart, but that’s another story…
The last person I called that night was my grandmother, Connie. By then the pale pinks and greys of early morning had replaced the dark of night. From the kitchen window I could see a thin line of orangey yellow where the sun was making itself known. A delicate fog made shadowy outlines of our garden shed, a neighbour’s tree, our back fence.
I dialed my grandmother’s number. I was drained and exhausted but it was time. The phone rang for a few seconds and then was answered. I stopped breathing and heard an older woman’s voice.
I couldn’t seem to make myself reply. A second longer and she would hang up, disturbed that no one was on the line.
“Grandma? It’s me, Alicia,” I blurted out.
“Alicia…?” Then she screamed, “Alicia! Oh my God! Where are you, mijita*? Come see me!”
It was very hard to tell her I was thousands of miles away in Australia.
“Australia? Australia? Why are you in Australia, Honey?”
I explained that I had met and married an Australian. She seemed amazed that could ever happen in a normal world, so we moved on to trying to bridge the decades. My grandmother told me the last time she saw me I was about six months old and my mother was holding me up in a bus window as the bus pulled into traffic. She had no idea that we would disappear after that day.
We did eventually meet again a couple of years after my phone call when in 1995 my four-year-old daughter and I were visiting the U.S. from Australia. Connie and my dad’s sister Sandra agreed to meet us at the Los Angeles airport while we waited for our next flight. I wish I had a clearer memory of the experience, but I do remember the three of us women spending valuable catching up time frantically searching the international terminal for my daughter’s tiny backpack. (If this had happened today, we probably would’ve located the backpack after it was remotely detonated by a robot.)
If only I had the presence of mind to ask my grandmother the most basic of questions while we ran around the airport. For instance: why was my dad and his sister Sandra both unusually tall? Who was their dad? Where was his family from? What was your mother’s name? Where was she from?
I never did ask those questions, and I hate to admit that I was terrible at keeping in touch with her. Finding lost family is a far more complex experience than just joyful reunions. I think my anger at my father and his many wives and children coloured how I viewed my grandmother. I deeply regret letting this relationship slip through my fingers, but I did.
Connie died a few years ago and my Aunt Sandy doesn’t seem to have any further detail, but in her middle name, Ruth, I would discover a very special clue to at least one of my questions.
A few weekends ago I went back to my Ancestry.com account and almost immediately made an exciting discovery that had eluded me for years. I found Connie’s mother and learned her name: Ruth Roche! Clearly, by naming her daughter Sandra Ruth, Connie had given her a middle name that was a special connection to her mother.
Of course, finding my great-grandmother brings with it more questions than it answers. Who was she? Where was her family from? How did she and my great-grandfather meet? In the 1920s, a mixed marriage such as theirs would have been scandalous.
So I ordered an AncestryDNA kit in the hope that it will reveal more about her origins – and mine. When the kit arrived a few weeks ago I ripped it open, followed the instructions, and sent it back all on the same day. I have just received an email update that the Ancestry lab now has my vial! I should have my DNA results very soon. I am deliriously excited about this.
I always thought I was ‘half’ Jewish from my mother’s side (a Jewish mother makes me a Jewish woman), and ‘half’ Mexican Indian from my father’s side. With Ruth in the DNA mix, it surely must be a different story. I can’t wait to find out.
As thrilling as this is, though, the only other detail I know about my great-grandmother came from a modest one-line death notice from 1929 in a San Francisco newspaper (thanks to Ancestry’s Newspapers.com).
There, in a list of those who had passed away the day before, was Ruth’s name and “23 years”. How she died and made my great-grandfather a widower at 26 and left a three-year-old daughter behind, I do not know. But 11 years later, thanks to the 1940 census, I find that my great-grandfather and 15-year-old Connie are living with two of his brothers and their families. At least they weren’t alone. If only I had known to ask my grandmother about this time in her life during our rushed airport visit…
If only… If only….
There are so many of these when you embark on a journey of family discovery after everyone who could have filled in the blanks are long gone.
There is the thrill of discovery, yes, but also a sadness that you will never completely piece it all together. At least I am one name richer: Ruth Roche. Will I ever see a photo of her? Will I know where she was from? Will I know how she died?
So watch this space. I’ve never been so thrilled to spit into a vial before…
*’mijita’ is the diminutive for ‘little daughter’ in Spanish. It is common in Mexican families for older family members to call every girl ‘mijita’ and every boy ‘mijito’.
Copyright Alicia Mayer 2016. All rights reserved.