[Note: This article was written several years ago.]
The letters and Christmas cards had been stashed in a shallow box of my father’s things that was under my mother’s bed when my siblings and I cleaned out her apartment after her death in 2004. I kept the box intact within one of the larger boxes of my mother’s stuff that I had shipped to my house, knowing that I needed to keep my father’s things separate. I had watched my father, then 43 years old, collapse and die of a heart attack on our kitchen floor in 1975 when I was 11.
The letters were addressed to my father and were mostly from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. There were Christmas cards from what appeared to be friends of my parents when they lived near Denver, and a letter from what seemed to be a landlady, inquiring about how my parents had fared in their move back east in 1962. And then, there was a long, yellowed envelope addressed by hand to my father at the address of his grandparents in Perrysburg, New York. The return address gave no name, just an address in Lakewood, California. The postmark was March 27, 1958. I reached into the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of plain note paper and three color photos. The letter read:
“Mar. 25, 1958
“I read your letter to Elayne and you sounded as if you might like to know a little about this side of your family. So am enclosing these three pictures of us, Mother, Ethel, Hugh & me. These were taken a year ago, Mother’s Day – May 1957.
“I wrote to you once when you were in the Service, but perhaps the letter didn’t catch up with you.
“Mother will be 80 in Aug. Ethel 58 in July, Hugh just past his 53rd birthday & I will be 48 the end of this month.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could spend your vacation out here this year, we’d all love to see you.
“We’ve had plenty of much needed rain this year, and with so many men out of work, either because of weather or general slump, we feel very lucky that Hugh is working for the City of Lakewood – Civil Service.
“Hope you are well & would love a line from you,
“Loads of love,
“Edythe Lautz (your aunt)”
I stared at the final words. I had never heard of an aunt of my father’s named Edythe. Then I looked at the pictures. I had never seen pictures of these people. Two showed Edythe and her sister Ethel with their mother, and one featured Edythe with her husband. They were posed in front of a modest house. One photo showed a large cactus in a planter next to the door. The women wore classic dresses from the late 1950’s era. No one smiled.
Who were these people, and why didn’t I know anything about them? I pulled out another card without an envelope. It read:
“Dear Warren, Martha & children,
“We wish you would write us & tell us about your family & what you’re doing. We are still family.
“Love & Merry Xmas,
Another envelope, this one from Long Beach, California was postmarked Dec. 1964. It held a Christmas card, signed, “Hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday. Lovingly, Grandma Kabel”.
A grandmother? Did my father have a grandmother alive in 1964, the year I was born? I pulled out another Christmas card, this one from Santa Ana, California in 1962:
“Dear Warren & family – Think of you often. Still would like to get to know you or hear from you.
Elayne Guss & family”.
Then another card from Edythe postmarked Dec. 1964:
“Dear Warren & Martha,
“Ethel is in the hospital (intensive care) with an acute coronary. All started Nov. 11. Was in hospital 3 wks & 2 days, home 5 days, suffered the severe attack, back in (by ambulance). I’m babysitting Mother (86 years old) can’t be left alone – Doctors assure us Ethel will ‘make it’ – Pray.
My mind flashed back to the orange poster that my sister had created for a family tree project in sixth grade, coupled with the research that I had compiled since. None of these names were on the poster, and I hadn’t run into them in any of my research. And my mother had never mentioned any of these people when I asked her about my father’s family. Perhaps she had forgotten about them by then? I wasn’t sure.
But now I wanted to know who they were. They had to be from my father’s mother’s side of the family. My father’s mother, born Wilfred Smith, was known as “Billie”. She was a tragic figure, dying of “a tubercular heart”, my mother called it, only three weeks after my father’s birth, when she was only 30 years old. My mother had told me that she had been married for about 10 years before she finally had a child, against the advice of her family and her doctor, who feared that a pregnancy would be too hard on her fragile heart. I had assumed that Billie was an only child, because no one had ever mentioned that my dad had aunts or uncles on that side. And I had assumed that Billie’s mother had died much earlier, only because I had never heard about her except for her unusual name, Jewell Lies, on that family tree poster from my childhood. So much for assumptions.
Yet for all the mystery I felt surrounded my father’s mother’s family, I hadn’t spent much time researching them. Billie’s father was “John Smith from Canada” on the orange poster. Without more to go on, I didn’t know where to begin. And at that point in my genealogical research life, I was really just beginning, and there was always more and easier research to do on other branches which extended back to the Puritans of New England, with the limited time I had to devote to my hobby as the mother of an infant daughter and another one on the way.
Now, Jewell’s unusual name would assist me. I turned on my computer and signed onto Ancestry and quickly pulled up census records from 1920. I had census records for Billie and her husband, my grandfather, in 1930, two years before my father’s birth and her death, but I can’t believe I hadn’t taken the time to look for Billie and her family of origin in 1920. There they were – Jewell Smith, a widow, living in Buffalo with daughters Ethel, Wilfred (“Billie”), and Edythe and her mother Carolina Lies. So Ethel Davis and Edythe Lautz were, indeed, my father’s aunts. And census records for 1930 revealed that Jewell had indeed remarried a Charles Kabel by then.
But even with this new information, my grandmother still seemed very mysterious to me. My father had never shown me a picture of her, or spoken of her much before he died when I was 11. She was a tragic ghost in his life, and it seemed painful for him to think about her. I believe the reality was that he knew very little about her himself, because, I suspect, it had been so painful for his father to recall his own tragic loss of his first wife that he couldn’t bear to pass on the memories to his first wife’s only child. He had moved on, as strong people did in the 1930’s, re-marrying in 1938 and having another child, my father’s half-sister Judith.
And now, knowing that my father’s mother had sisters that my father was in touch with but had never mentioned and didn’t include on the family tree made her seem even more mysterious. I turned back to the box of my dad’s stuff and picked up a wooden cigar box of photos. I looked through the photos again, one by one. Not a single one was identified, so there was no way to know even which side of his family these photos were from. I closed the cigar box and happened to turn it over. Something caught my eye. Written on the back of the box in very light pencil was the name “Edith Smith”. The grey of the pencil was so light against the brown of the wooden box that I had missed it before.
Okay, so this was in fact from my dad’s mother’s side of the family. Now, looking through the photos again a single photo stood out. It showed a young woman and a young man, clearly in love, having fun, each with a single arm around the other. The woman was dressed in the style of the 1920’s. The photo was small, only about 2 inches by 3 inches and the figures in the photo were distant. Were these my grandparents? I put the photos on my scanner to enlarge them. I had photos of my grandfather Francis that my father’s half-sister Judith, my half-aunt, had sent me. She and I had only met via email about four years ago, and she had not been in touch with my father since the mid-1960’s and hadn’t even been notified when he died. It seemed that my father had disconnected himself from every single member of his family of origin around that time! But I had tracked her down around the time of my mother’s death, and we had corresponded many times, traded photographs and brought each other up-to-date on four decades of Hall family history, and on our lives and respective families.
I looked at the photo, and thought of Aunt Judith. Was that Francis, her father? I couldn’t tell. I e-mailed it to her and she confirmed that it was, and that the woman was not her mother. Given that it was in a box with her sister’s name written on it, it was reasonable to assume that the woman was Billie.
I was thrilled to finally have a confirmed photo of my grandmother, but it made me long to find out more about her. She still seemed very mysterious to me, and it stunned and troubled me that someone’s memory could virtually disappear in only two generations.
And there were still more questions. Ethel Davis and Edith Lautz were my father’s aunts, but who was Elayne Guss, the family member who had written to my dad in the early 1960’s? I found a death record for an Elayne Guss in Bend, Oregon in Dec. 1973. Was this her? The record said her maiden name was Davis, so yes, this was her and she was the daughter of Ethel. That made her my dad’s cousin. The death record said she died at age 47 in 1973. Another early death.
What had happened to these people who had tried so hard to connect with my father for so many years? What had become of them and their families – my extended family? Over the next months, I started looking for obituaries whenever I could – always the best way to find the next generation. I found four cousins of my father’s, including Elayne, all of whom were the children of Ethel Davis. Elayne was the only girl. Since the boys’ names were very common with the last name Davis, it was hard to determine whether anyone I could find with those names were truly my father’s cousins. The only certain one was Lyle Davis, Jr., who had been shot down over Germany in World War II, leaving no children.
The months turned into years as I put my research mostly on hold while my children were young and I was balancing my professional and family responsibilities – and yet my mind kept coming back to Elayne Guss, and her words on the card to my dad: “Think of you often – Still would like to get to know you or hear from you.” Dead in Bend, Oregon in Dec. 1973 at the age of 47. I had searched every on-line source I knew for an obituary, and had come up empty.
One day in the summer of 2009, after a meeting on Capitol Hill in my role as a government relations consultant, I stopped by the Library of Congress to inquire if they had newspapers from 1973 in Bend, Oregon. Nothing. So, finally, I went the old-fashioned route and submitted a request for an inter-library loan of microfilm of the Bend Bulletin through my local library in Reston, Virginia. I waited three weeks, and my request was declined. Nothing again.
Then it occurred to me that other genealogists might be able to help me. I already belonged to a list-serve for the counties in Western New York that I researched. Why not join the list-serve for Deschutes County in Oregon? I joined. Days later, I submitted a request asking if anyone had access to the Bend Bulletin and could look for an obituary for Elayne Guss who had died there on Dec. 26, 1973.
A few days later, I got an e-mail from someone in Bend. Attached was a scanned copy of the obituary:
“Funeral services for Elayne May Guss, 47, will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Niswonger Reynolds Chapel. She was the wife of Lester M. Guss, a Bend School District employee, with whom she made her home at Deschutes Recreation Homesites.
“Mrs. Guss taught at Bear Creek School until retiring last year for health reasons. She came to Bend six years ago from Los Angeles. She was born Nov. 2, 1926, at Buffalo, N.Y.
“Her death Wednesday evening at her home was the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
Oh no – my dad’s cousin had committed suicide on the day after Christmas in 1973.
To be continued . . .