My Mysterious Grandmother — Discovering a Hidden Branch on My Family Tree, Part II

( . . . Continued from Sunday’s post)

Oh no – my dad’s cousin had committed suicide on the day after Christmas in 1973.

I wondered if my father knew at the time.  Probably not.  We were in Perrysburg by then, living off the grid.  The obituary listed the survivors.  Her mother Ethel was gone by then, but Aunt Edythe (the aunt of both Elayne and my father) who had sent so many cards and letters to my dad, was still alive.  I looked back through my dad’s letters, looking for something from Aunt Edythe alluding to Elayne’s death, but there was nothing from after 1964.

Now, I became focused on Elayne’s children.  At that point in my genealogical life, I had never researched people going forward.  I had always focused more on going backward in time.  Elayne’s children, all grown, were listed in the obituary with their locations, but that was from 1973.  It would be likely they would have moved by now.

Then it occurred to me to search for an obituary for Lester Guss, Elayne’s husband.  Bingo, I found it in two minutes, since he had died only in 2003.  The children were listed again, with locations.  I focused on the daughter Gayle Farley, my second cousin, listed as living in Truckee, California in 2003.  After a couple false starts, it occurred to me to try Facebook.  There were five Gayle Farley’s there.  One in particular seemed to be about the right age.  I clicked on her.  Then I looked at her “friends”.  They included two people with the last name Guss, her maiden name.  It was her.  Knowing I needed to cut through any thoughts of spam, I sent her a note with the subject: “Elayne Guss was my father’s cousin.”  Putting her mother’s name in the subject would certainly get her attention.  She wrote back the same day.  I had found my second cousin from a wing of family I hadn’t even known existed not long before!

Over the next few days, we corresponded a lot.  I told her about my father and his tragic death not long after her mother’s, and about my siblings and their children, and about my husband and my young daughters.  I sent her scans of the letters and cards to my dad from her mother Elayne, and her mother’s and my father’s mutual Aunt Edythe, and our mutual great-grandmother Jewell Kabel.  I explained that I had never known about her entire wing of the family, and I told her that I had only a single confirmed photo of my grandmother, Billie, and then explained about the cigar box with the name Edythe Smith written in faint pencil on the bottom, with all the unidentified pictures inside.

And one evening only a few days after I had first contacted her, I received an e-mail from her titled, “First Picture of Many”:

“Janet – Here is the first picture.  Probably the one that you wanted the most.  This is Billie as a young woman . . .”

I opened it and tears came to my eyes in an instant.  A young woman of 20 stands in a garden, dressed in a white dress in the style of the 1920’s.  She holds flowers up to her cheek and flowers are also woven into her hair.  It was a picture of my grandmother on her wedding day in 1922.

Billie Smith Wedding Day

Billie Smith on her Wedding Day (June 1, 1922)

Later the same night came another four pictures, including the only pictures I had ever seen of my great-grandfather “John Smith from Canada” (Billie’s father).  (I later learned through my research that he was originally Johann Schmidt, whose family emigrated from Germany to Canada in the 1870’s.)  He was a butcher in Buffalo and died in 1912 at the age of 41, from tuberculosis, as his daughter would 20 years later.

John Smith - cropped

John Smith, circa 1910, Buffalo, NY

And there were pictures of Jewell Lies Smith (Billie’s mother), and her parents, Peter and Carolina Lies.  (Later research revealed that Peter & Carolina were also German and owned a hat shop in Buffalo in the 1870’s.)  And there was also a picture of Billie and Ethel as children, probably around 7 and 8 years old.  In it, Ethel holds a baby named Vera who Gayle had never heard of, and who hasn’t shown up in any of my research – she likely died young, as many babies did during that era.  I stared into the face of Billie as a child and it was like staring at a picture of myself when I was that age.  I was the spitting image of my paternal grandmother when I was seven.

Pic for blog 4

Ethel (holding Vera) & Billie Smith, circa 1909

Now, something has been changed.  Now I feel that at least in part, my grandmother has no longer vanished for the ages.  The memory of her and her family can live on.  For myself, for my children, and for my siblings and their children and grandchildren and all the generations to come; and for my father, my grandmother and my father’s cousin Elayne, who all died too soon, the tragedy of their young deaths has become a little less tragic.

This is why I do genealogy.


3 thoughts on “My Mysterious Grandmother — Discovering a Hidden Branch on My Family Tree, Part II

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