Sunday, January 6, 2013

Disappearing Act

The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Hi folks. Happy new year. Let's hope 2013 is a lot better to me than 2012 has been. Jesus Christ!

No, I haven't run away, although I haven't been on the blogs for some time. That means not only have I not been updating this site on a regular basis, but that I missed out on all of your own blogs for almost a month now. Sorry 'bout that. I've been pretty down and out of things for a little while due to a crippling personal circumstance that has arisen. It's not about my health, nor has anyone died in my family. Thankfully everything's fine on both accounts. But I don't really want to go into details right now. Maybe later. Suffice to say that I've been very sad and hurt in all this time, and haven't had much enthusiasm to start up the PC and blog about stuff.

It happens.

However, things weren't all doom and gloom in my world. Over the summer I discovered a long lost branch of my family tree. They're my maternal grandmother's side, descended through her older brother--her only full-blooded sibling, and in fact the only person she would ever talk about from her childhood. My grandmother raised her children alone, and then when my mother died she raised myself and my siblings as well. And in all that time, she never once mentioned her family or where she came from. But then a little over a year ago she expressed an interest in finding her brother. He was 9 years older than she, and he had an unusual first name. I learned at the time that she had been born in Augusta, Georgia in 1934 and came from a large family of siblings and step-siblings. She had been the youngest.

Most of this was news to me, but with this information and her brother's unusual name, I was able to get down to business and conduct some serious online sleuthing. My investigation took several months, and in that time I never could quite pin down where her brother was living. Or whether he was still living at all. If he was alive, he would have been 87 years old. I came across mentions of her half- and step-siblings, though. Seems most of them still lived in Georgia. But of her only full blooded sibling that had survived childhood? Nothing.

Or rather, several nothings. Owing to his unusual name--and the fact that I knew he used to live in Brooklyn--I was able to find several address listings under his name for the New York City area! Wow, I thought. Could he have been living so close to us all this time? The possibility blew my mind. My grandma was a very secretive person, however, and wouldn't explain how it was that this close relative of hers had remained out of contact for so long when he was living so close to us. I wondered if I should even be bother trying to find him. Maybe he didn't want to be found?

So I let the search go cold in early 2012. But then more details came to light. I revealed to grandma that I had learned of her brother's death. He died only six years ago, and was buried in a military cemetery out on Long Island. Apparently he had been in the army and fought in World War II once upon a time ago. That wasn't all. I also learned that he was listed as "mulatto" on his service record, which was a huge shock to me since I had been led to believe all my life that my grandmother's family was Caucasian. As the months went by, I was able to piece together more and more information from grandma. To be sure, her own children had asked her these questions over and over throughout their lives. But perhaps because I was always her favorite grandchild, or because she was just getting to that age where she needed closure, she began to divulge more and more details from her past. It turns out her parents were of mixed race, which was a very tough thing to be in the deep south during the Great Depression. Her mother had been half white, and her father as well. Apparently her mom passed for white, while her father appeared to be a light-skinned black. But in those days in America--and perhaps even nowadays in some places--it was very difficult to belong to both worlds. You were either one or the other. And society always saw mixed people as black. White people did, and black people did as well.

My great grandmother died just 22 months after giving birth to my grandma. Her father then married a black woman, and my grandma's life was a living hell from that moment on. Due to the fact that my grandmother could pass for completely Caucasian, she lived a life of constant torment and derision at her stepmother's hands. It's an age-old story, of course. The wicked stepmother. The bratty step siblings. Except, in my grandma's case, you had to add to it another layer of racial prejudice. Her birth certificate called her a "mulatto," so she was ostracized by white society. But her face and skin color made her too white to be accepted by the blacks in her neighborhood and in her own family. Her older brother was the only person who protected her, although he too had to deal with the same hardships due to his light complexion. My grandma was born blond and blue-eyed. Her brother, red hair and blue eyes. Although he could still pass for black due to his facial features if not complexion, my grandmother could not. Still, he looked out for her and his other full-blooded sister until she passed away at the age of 7. When he joined the army, he promised his only surviving sister that he would take her away from that hell they lived in.

Grandma on the right, age 2. Her brother
in the center. Their sister, left.

And he stayed true to his promise. He married and settled in Brooklyn, and my grandma--just a teenager at the time--moved in with the new couple until she herself got married a few years later. Then some type of falling out occurred between sister and brother. They saw each other one last time at their father's funeral several years later in 1959, but then completely fell out of contact after that.

You have to understand how all this information hit me like a ton of bricks. My grandmother had married a white man from the back hills of North Carolina, you see, and all my life I had believed that my mother's family was completely Caucasian. My grandpa was Scots-Irish. My grandma looked white to me, and so did my mother and her siblings. Grandmother's children all had blue or green eyes, and my mother had blond hair to boot. This was the truth I always knew growing up.

Except, it wasn't the real picture. It was partly true, of course, but it wasn't the WHOLE truth. And now I knew a lot more than I did before. But what could I do? I had nine different addresses in Brooklyn and Queens that might have been where my grand uncle lived, but how did I know which one was his? However, as Spring turned to Summer, I started to rationalize all the clues. All of the addresses were in the same or general vicinity of one another. Almost as if one person had moved several times in his life, but stayed in the same area. Also, I started to find listings for other names matching my grand uncle's, but with a different middle initial. I wondered to myself: what was the chances of all these people NOT being related? After all, my grand uncle's name was highly unusual. One in a million unusual. It began to dawn on me that there could not be this many people in the NYC area with that same name.

It was around this time my grandma asked me to resume my search. She had been heartbroken to learn of her brother's death earlier, and the news had been haunting her sleep for months now. She was depressed and haggard, and cried a lot. So I renewed my efforts. I figured out a different search algorithm and quickly uncovered some exciting news. My grand uncle had had children, and one of them bore his exact name. There was a "junior" out there! That accounted for the different initials, then. Furthermore, I had learned that Junior had a son as well, also named after my grand uncle. He was a "third." And better yet, he was very close to my age! Unfortunately, further digging revealed to me that Junior had passed away only 3 years after his father. I was devastated. But, as far as I could tell, Junior's son was still alive and living in Queens! If this was true, he would be my second cousin.

Grandma's brother in the Army, early 1940s.

I couldn't let this opportunity pass by. I had to act. Just as with his grandfather, I had several addresses listed for my cousin as well. But, I was determined to try them all if needed. My grandma's urgency spurred me on. I just had to do this for her! I took the list of addresses and picked the one that seemed to pop up the most during my searches. The one above all others that had popped up even for his father and grandfather. I hoped he was still living at the same location. Or if not that, then perhaps the people living there now would know where to find him. So, in early July I penned a letter to my would-be cousin. I explained who I was, and who my grandmother was. I asked him if he was indeed related to my grand uncle, and I listed off a few family details I knew for sure were true and which a relative might recognize. Lastly, I left a number where I could be reached, and then I sent the letter off.

The very next day I got a phone call. Mail travels very quickly within the city, you see. But boy was my heart beating hard when I answered the phone! It was my cousin, and he was so shocked to hear from me. "We've been looking for my grandfather's sister for a very long time," he said excitedly. He was very happy to hear that she was still alive, but was taken aback by the fact that we lived so close. The family had always believed that my grandmother had moved to Chicago or somewhere else far away. To think that we were just one county over all this time! We talked for hours that night, and he told me that someone in his family was even more eager to talk to me. His aunt Pam, my grand uncle's daughter. She was close to the same age as my own aunt--my grandmother's daughter, Susan--and she was the family's resident genealogist. She would be able to answer all of my questions about her father!

Grandma as a young woman, early 1950s.

I could not believe my luck. But, unfortunately, that's a story for another blog update. The quick version is: I found my grandma's family, and have met them. We had a big get-together this Christmas, and a whole lot of tears and laughter followed. And some healing, too. It made my own personal tragedy seem insignificant at the time, and is perhaps the only real good thing that happened to me over the holidays.

I tell you something: I really can't believe all this has happened. Or that I was the architect of it all. Because of my stubborn refusal to give up hope, and because I love my grandma more than anything in life, I managed to pull off a miracle the likes of which you only hear about in movies. To know that I have close relatives out there whom I've gone most of my life never knowing even existed, and that we live in the same city with just a river between us! I never could have believed such a thing might happen, even a year ago when I first began this search.

I've learned a lot. Some secrets, both bad and good. I've dug up hateful history about race relations in this country, too. But above all, I've reunited two sides of a family that should never have been apart. While my grandma's side looks white and her brother's side today looks black, we are still the same family. Their blood runs through my veins. We belong to a greater bond that not even time and heartache can deny. It's sad that my grandma could not say goodbye to her brother before he left us. It's sad that they could not reconcile whatever had driven them apart. But through his wife (who still remembers my grandmother, even though they've been sixty-three years apart) and her children, grandma has received some closure. She is happy again. And that makes me happy.

Grandma with her son, my uncle Ron. Spring 2005.

I have to deal with my own sadness, true. But at least I have this. This is huge. I've debated about sharing all this here on the blog, but it's too big a development in my life not to share. I can't reveal any names because I don't want this story to be searchable by other people who might mean my immediate family any malice. But for you folks reading this now, I thank you for letting me share.

I hope you had a very merry Christmas, and may your new year bring good health, love, and happiness. To all of you I say--CHEERS!


  1. Well, what a year of learning. I'm glad that your research efforts paid such dividends. How exciting, to unearth a whole new branch of your family.

    So sad to hear your personal circumstances are causing you grief. If you need somewhere less public to vent, you have my email address and are welcome to use it.

    Hope 2013 shapes up with better news.

  2. Life imitating art, incredible story.

    Sorry to hear about 2012 and really hope 2013 or whatever random year it actually is, is better.

    2012? F..k that year was bad.

  3. My friend, I hope you are ok. If there is anything I can do to help just let me know. I can direct quite a bit of malice towards anyone that threatens my friends, trust me.

  4. Thanks, guys. For all the support. I'm still dealing with a lot right now, and can't really talk about it. Perhaps some day soon I will, but not right now. Bear with me.

    And I forgot to mention about the family photos above: all except the very last one came from my new family members. These are pics of my grand uncle and grandmother no one in my family has ever seen before. I have to say, finding new family AND having tons of old photos to look through has been quite surreal. I can't believe how much my life has changed in one year. Unreal!

  5. Happy New Year to you David! My heart breaks for your sadness. Remember, you are stronger than you know. I tell everyone that, when I learn they are struggling with something. It's true. You are so much stronger than you will ever know. May 2013 bring you good health, a happy heart and a lot of laughter! A good bottle of wine doesn't hurt either. heh.

    Wow. What an amazing story you just told us! I LOVED it! How awesome is that? You single-handedly orchestrated this family reunion for your grandma. I am so incredibly happy for you friend! What an unforgettable Christmas gift! I remember when I first started reading your blog, and you wrote about your grandma and your mom and your childhood. I remember how you always said it had always been just you your brother and your grandmother, after your mom passed away. And I always wondered why you never spoke of cousins or aunts and uncles. This is HUGE!!! :) Very cool!

    It's way past my bedtime, (there goes my first New Year's resolution out the window)so I'm going to stop writing. Otherwise, I'll write for hours! ;)

    Sending you positive vibes and a huge vicarious hug, sweets! Everything will work out. Whatever it is, everything will work out. It always does.


  6. Thank you so much, Yvonne. You're very kind and sweet, and your words mean a lot to me. I hope you have a fantastic 2013 as well!

    In the meantime, I imagine you must be quite anxious for this Sunday to come . . . :)

    It's a huge game! I'll be on the edge of my seat watching that one. And I'm pretty sure I know where you'll be. ;)

  7. You're very welcome! This year we're kicking 2013 in the proverbial arse!!! OMG, I am going to be a nervous wreck on Sunday! It's do or die!!! lol

  8. That sounds like the story should be written - in a book. Now you've got a new "true" story to pen. You can always change the names to protect the family :D just an idea.

  9. Kim, the thought has crossed my mind. But at this juncture, I still know too little about that side of the family to be able to fill a book without resorting to fiction. Perhaps one day, however, as I learn more details and meet more of my older family members who are related to my grandma and are still alive.

  10. What a wonderful story! Glad to know that you were able to connect to your other family members. I hope both sides of your family tree keep in touch.

    I know you are going through a lot right now but you have friends and family that love you very much. Please keep that in mind as your ride the ups and downs in life. I hope you find some clarity in 2013. :)

  11. Good post. I saw your brother's face when I saw that old army pic of your granduncle. Bugged out! I'm loving the reunion so much.

    As for the other stuff, you already know. I'm here.


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