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Politically Incorrect

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The gift of family

The best gift I got for Christmas this year wasn’t a Christmas present and didn’t come in December. It came sometime back in the spring, when I interviewed Betsy Fulling for a story on genealogy. Betsy has been researching her family’s history for many years and has tracked her ancestors back through their immigration to America and some of their early, Germanic roots.

If you don’t know Betsy, you’re missing out on a real treat, because she’s a kind, gentle and very funny woman. She also has the gift of being the best kind of teacher – the kind who engages your interest and fires you with enthusiasm for the subject she’s teaching. That’s just what she did with me in a two-hour interview at Carrera’s in the Bonner Mall, and in the process she gave me one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received – my family.

Fresh out of my interview with her, I didn’t know what I wanted to do more – get the story written, or start looking into my own family’s past. I began with my family research, and I haven’t stopped since.

Not long into my search, I think before Betsy’s story was even printed in the paper, I found my Uncle Charlie. Literally found him. My father died over 15 years ago, and we had lost touch with his brother, Charles. I believed he was probably dead, even though he was the youngest of the three brothers. But I found a message from his son, my cousin Tony, on an Internet bulletin board devoted to genealogy and through Tony found Uncle Charlie where he was living in Jackson, Tennessee. The family was together again.

Not long after that, I came across a lot of information on my maternal great-grandmother’s family, the Newberrys. On writing to the researcher of this prodigious amount of information, I found my cousin Parke. I don’t remember now what the calculation is – she’s something like my second cousin three times removed or something, but she immediately felt like family. In one of her first emails to me she wrote that she was in her seventies, and that “the computer is my lifeline to the world.” I immediately said a prayer that we share enough of the same genes that I, too, in my seventh decade will be as interesting and active as she is.

The easy finds out of the way, I entered into the more normal process of genealogy research – writing to various state and county offices, requesting copies of birth, marriage and death certificates; squinting my way through rolls of microfilm, trying to interpret the spidery handwriting on turn-of-the-century census records; finding historical societies in various counties who might be willing to look for newspaper obituaries; digging through the volumes of information at the LDS church’s Family History Library; sharing in the shock of the entire genealogy community (estimated to be in the millions just in the U.S.) when the federal government upped the price of a copy of old social security applications by 400%.

Along the way, I’ve been the recipient of many genealogy “angels” like an elderly lady from Breckenridge, Texas, who called to tell me that she’d sat with my grandmother after the automobile accident that took her life and the Freemason who took Polaroid pictures of a portrait of my grandpa Joe, giving me my first glimpse of the man my mother met only twice in her life.

The work was slow, and made slower by the discovery that my family liked to lie a lot. Take my great-grandpa Will, for instance. In notes I made to keep track of my work, I listed: “Name given as Will in the family bible, William on his application for a social security number, Bill on his death certificate and his obituary and known as Bud in the Newberry marriage records.” Hmm. My mom wasn’t much help. “We called him Papa,” she laughed. So for every record I searched, I had to search under every possible name.

Nicknames for given names are common to everyone, however. My real problem with great-grandpa Will was in trying to figure out how old he was. Again from my notes: “Birthdate given as 7 Aug 1887 in the family bible, as 6 Aug 1893 in his obituary and social security application and 6 Aug 1897 on his death certificate.” As Will himself filled out his application for a social security number, you’d think that information was most likely to be correct. If it was, however, good old Will was only 14 when he married my great-grandmother, and 16 when his first son was born. I know they did things earlier back in the “old days” but that young? The mystery wasn’t solved until I found Will and his parents on the 1900 census, where his age was listed as 13 – which meant he lied about his age when he applied for a social security card, making himself a good six years younger. I bet, if I could figure out why, there would be a good story there.

With the census information, I realized that Will’s mother (listed as Nancy in the family bible) was called Nannie – her husband was Jim. Nannie and Jim have taken up a great deal of my time in the last several months, as I’ve tried to trace whatever tracks they left through historical records.

I found a marriage record (thanks to the Mormon Church’s intense efforts at preserving these types of records) for Jim and Nannie, who was a Parker by birth, in 1886, and there my trail has stopped. The license doesn’t list the names of their parents, which makes finding them on the 1880 census problematical (though not impossible). It looks like 700 or so families in Texas had a boy named James that year and there are a lot more Parkers named Nannie then you might suspect. And that’s assuming they were even in Texas then; given the peripatetic nature of this family (both before and since) I’m not sure that’s a good assumption to make. Still, I wade through records and wait on information to come in the mail, and wonder about Jim and Nannie.

Then, out of the blue, my mother told me about the picture that’s hung on my bedroom wall since I was 14 years old. “Well, that’s Grandma and Grandpa Williams,” she said. “Oh,” I answered, and then it hit me. “Oh! Oh! It’s Jim and Nannie!” I rushed into my room to stare with new eyes at the picture I’ve looked at just about every single day of my life, and the tears fell unabashedly from my eyes. “Hi there, Jim,” I said to the figure who looked like a slightly younger version of Colonel Sanders. “Hi, Nannie.” She’s fatter, and more severe looking than what I would have thought. Of course, she also gave birth to a child every other year for a total of 12 children that I know of, including Carl and Elma who were twins. “I’m your great-great granddaughter,” I told them and I swear, I saw them smile and nod.

This Christmas, as my family gathers around the table for baked ham and apple pie, there will be extras at the table, even if they’re only there in my mind. The uncles and cousins and great, great, greats that I’ve gotten to know in the last few months. I’ll think of my great-great-great grandmother, Permelia Ann Elizabeth Sarah Abigail Ardric Wade Reynolds (said to be the first child and therefore named after ALL her relatives) who married three or four times and ended her life sewing shirts for prisoners in New Mexico; great-uncle Jessie Lee Presley, whose picture looks an awful lot like my Uncle Charlie; my fifth great-grandfather, Samuel Newberry Sr., who at 14 years of age stowed away on a ship bound for America and arrived in time for our Revolutionary War. And I’ll think of Betsy, who first issued the invitation to all the new family joining us at table. Thanks, Betsy. It’s a wonderful gift, one of the best I’ve ever gotten.


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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Family, genealogy, Uncle Charlie, Newberry, Parke Bogle, Williams

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