Tuesday, July 22, 2008
In February of this year, my paternal grandmother passed away. She lived in a very rural area of south-central Missouri. Her biggest hobby was genealogy, so of course, her house was just packed to the gills with a disorganized array of boxes containing thousands of potential family history gems for our family. I was not prepared, however, to discover such treasures for a family I'd never met.
The story began ten years earlier, when my grandmother's youngest daughter was cleaning out an apartment in San Diego, California. She found a box that contained a baby book, a ginormous amount of old pictures and photo albums, and all kinds of other valuables. Knowing my grandmother was almost obsessed with genealogy, she sent it on to her in Missouri.
My grandmother was a wonderful hobby genealogist, but had never really learned the full value of the internet. She tried for a time after receiving the box to get it back to the original owner, a family with the common surname of Livingston. She sent letters to all Livingstons in the San Diego area, but she never got a response. I don't think she knew what else to do, so the box was relegated to a dusty corner of her basement while the baby book from the box sat tucked away in a shelf of her not-often used desk.
As the family-proclaimed "genealogy expert," it was decided after my grandmother's funeral that I would go through all of the genealogy papers, books and pictures; organize and copy them; and eventually, put them together into some sort of permanent record for everyone else. With that said, it was decided that the "Livingston" box would go to me to see if I could find anything.
After arriving home and unpacking all of the very dusty boxes, I decided that my first step would be to get this "lost" treasure box back to its rightful owner.
I took the baby book from the box and started digging for clues there first. This book was for a woman born sometime in the early 1970s. Her father's last name was Miller, and her mother's maiden name was Livingston. That presented me with my first problem. Both of those are extremely common surnames, and assuming that both her parents would still be alive, it would be difficult to just "google" them, as it were. I tried it anyway, and as expected, just spun my wheels for the first day or so.
I decided another tactic was needed, so I scanned the baby book for other relatives. I happened to find her now-deceased grandparents on Ancestry.com from a "family tree" page in the baby book, but again, that didn't leave me much to go on.
I read a page in the book that indicated they lived in a small town in Illinois for a time, and while there, this little girl had built a snowman with an older neighbor boy with the last name of Feroli. Now, that was an uncommon surname. I finally had something to go on, as minute as those details might have been. I went onto zabasearch.com. (It's scary what you can find about yourself on this site, but it can be used for good, too, so I had no qualms about using the information here to track some people down.) I happened to find this neighbor boy all grown up and living only a few miles away from the little town where he and she had grown up. I called the last number I found on zabasearch and left a message. A few hours later, I had a very confused and now-paranoid man on the phone trying to find out how I'd found his information, etc. I explained the situation, and he let me know that the family had only lived there for a few years before the parents divorced, and that he thought the mother and her children (including the subject of the much-mentioned baby book) had moved back to California. Not a lot of help, really. If the mother had divorced, had she retaken her maiden name, or perhaps remarried and changed her last name? And what about the girl? Chances were, she had married by now and had also changed her name. With both the mother and child having very common first names, as well, I knew I wouldn't get anywhere with that method.
I looked through the baby book again, and this time, took some information on a cousin mentioned in one of the pages. She must have been an older cousin because it listed her married name. Turning to zabasearch again, I managed to find her and her husband now living in Washington state. I called and left another obscure message about what I was trying to do. She called me back that evening, and was rather startled to discover that her unlisted phone number (as her husband is a police officer) was available on the internet. But once she realized I had genuine intentions and wasn't a previous "client" of her husband's, she was very helpful. She explained that she had lost touch with her cousins several years earlier and didn't have any information. However, if I found anything, she wanted to know so she could get in touch with them again.
I did take the information she gave me on the baby book girl's uncle and aunt. Using that information, I found the uncle living in San Diego county. I called and left a message. Imagine my surprise, when his sister, the mother of the girl in the baby book, called me back. She wanted to hear the whole story of how we ended up with this box, but was so grateful. I told her I would mail her the entire contents of the box within a few days. She let me know that she would be so grateful to have that back, and more particularly, she would now owe an apology to her ex-husband, who she had blamed for losing the contents of the box for all these years.
I went to the post office the next day after carefully packing the extremely fragile contents of the box into a new, mailing-friendly container. I believe it cost $35-40 to mail the box back priority shipping, but it was so nice to be sending the treasures home where they belonged. Only a week and a half had elapsed since I had first opened the box to solve the puzzle. After my post office excursion, I also called back the cousin in Washington state and gave her the contact information for her now-found cousin. She was so excited to be able to get in touch with them again.
What we can learn from our own family histories can be a source of strength and inspiration to us, but what we can learn when we assist others in reconnecting with their histories can be even more profound. From this interesting experience, I learned several things.
1-) Uncommon surnames are much easier to find information and records on, especially so for the living.
2-) Baby books or other family history records can be invaluable for reasons that we might not discover in our lifetimes.
3-) People get very paranoid when some strange woman from Kansas calls them up and starts asking about details from their childhoods and families that they barely remember.
4-) Don't blame your ex-husband for missing items unless you can keep in touch with your cousin, whose husband is a police officer, and can actually dust for prints.
5-) There is a higher power that can and will assist us in our efforts to help our fellow human beings.
6-) Despite our varied backgrounds, there is a common story that connects us all -- family.