This is Part 1 of 2 of a story about the search for truth through family history, genealogy and storytelling.
Photographs provided by Laurie Liberty
We were sitting around the spacious kitchen table on Long Island.
My grandmother to my right, one of my newly found cousins and his wife sitting across from us, and another cousin at the head of the table, notebooks and photo albums open, the camera pointing towards my grandmother, red light on.
“I never knew what happened to my cousin, George,” my grandmother shared for the first time to the others, “his brothers were always there through much of my life, but, George…” she trailed off, a glint of joy and perhaps disappointment in her eyes.
For me, this wasn’t the first time I had heard my grandmother question the whereabouts and life story of a cousin who was 26 years her senior and seemed to have disappeared and disconnected from the rest of his family.
My grandmother is the daughter of a man who was one of seven children. As she was (and is) my only living grandparent, about a year ago, I felt this inner knowing it was important to really focus on putting the scattered pieces of her family back together again. Scattered in the way a newly opened box of jigsaw puzzle pieces cascade and land on a table, waiting to be put together again: solving mysteries my grandmother couldn’t fathom; finding old & new family members she wanted to reconnect with; unearthing old and new photographs; and revealing new truths.
Three weeks prior to our Huntington meeting, I was doing some research on my grandmother’s father, Sol, on Ancestry.com, when a family tree popped up at the very top of my search and it included Sol and many of his brothers and sisters, including Rose, one of Sol’s older sisters. A brief moment of confusion, excitement and curiosity arose in my chest (which often happens when finding trees of people you don’t know who have the names of your family members on it). I reached out to the owner of the tree, hoping I’d get a response, and within hours, I made contact with her. I was relieved to know someone wanted connect.
I found George’s granddaughter and Rose’s great-granddaughter.
In Huntington several weeks later, the cousins’ eyes listened fixedly on my grandmother as she told us about her memories of family and her hope of finding what happened to her cousin.
“We never knew how big our family was,” Laurie, her family’s historian, and her brother shared with us. “Our grandfather never spoke much about his family. He wasn’t much of a family man in general, but he certainly took care of the family financially and did much for the rest of the world.”
And then there was a pause.
Why did George separate himself from the family? What happened to him while growing up with Rose and his father, David? These became the looming questions.
With only one photograph of Rose and David, with their eldest son George on David’s lap, and a paper trail the seemed to come up with little answers to no answers to these questions or their timeline, my grandmother took a deep breath and chimed in:
“You know, my father [Sol] told me this story when I was younger. David was not a nice man. He was known to abuse and cheat on Rose. I recall my father telling me that he even beat her when she was pregnant. The brothers [Sol and his 4 brothers] intervened and told her she needed to leave him. She was so in love with him, and couldn’t see what was happening, that she refused to leave and stayed with him… It was rumored, too, then he eventually left her for another woman.”
How does someone respond to a story like this? Was it even true? Was any of it true? Could it be true?
I could see everyone’s eyes shifting, trying to make sense of it, how could this fit in to George’s story?
It’s very possible, many people at the table concluded, that George, as the eldest of four brothers, had to act as the “man of the house,” he had to perhaps protect his family. He had to live with abuse and untrustworthiness, and shield his younger brothers. Perhaps this is why they were around and he was not. Perhaps this is why he focused all his energy on doing good for the world at large, but had a hard time connecting emotionally to his own family.
And while this isn’t something that can be confirmed directly with George (as he passed away over 12 years ago) and is only speculation, it led us to the question of what really happened to Rose and David?
Find out in 2 weeks!
NOTE: David is not biologically related to me, he was married to Rose who is my great-grandfather’s sister.