Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Case Study in Bureaucracy

The year was 1976. I was freshly graduated from high school and ready to become a wage earner. But first, I had to have a Social Security account. Easy, right? But wait! I had been born overseas as an Army brat, and more significantly, not on a base hospital. My dad was with the ASA and stationed at an old Luftwaffe base in Rothwesten, Germany. So my officially-stamped birth certificate reads “Geburstekunde.”

I did have the consular report of my birth (both of my parents were American citizens, so I could have been born on the moon – I was still an American citizen.) but it was a Xeroxed copy and not the original, so it was not accepted. We need your green card, they kept mailing me.

At the same time this was going on, I was a fledgling genealogist. I had sent for and received my great-grandfather’s death record, having obtained his death date from his headstone. He was buried in the same town where I grew up, in the same cemetery where my grandparents were buried, and now, where my dad is buried – three generations in the same cemetery!

My great-grandfather’s name? John Joseph Smith! His death record revealed little I didn’t know, having grown up around most of his ten children and hearing lots of tales of the family. However, there was one detail that stood out to me: he had a Social Security number! At that moment, I had an epiphany. If I had to jump through so many hoops to get an account, what did an Irish immigrant have to do?

I contacted my local SS Administration office – which just happened to be the same one he would have applied to. Fortunately, this was in the days before they realized that genealogists were cash cows, so I got a copy of the application he filled out without having to sell my soul.

Although this document didn’t yield a lot more information than I already had (yes, when I get to the other side, he and I are going to have a conversation!) it did contain two more important tidbits: his exact birth date and his mother’s maiden name, although badly misspelled.
John and Kate (Beggins) Smith had ten children, six of them girls, known as “The Aunts.” Fast forward several years to a funeral of one of The Aunts. The youngest, Aunt Agnes, handed my dad a half-sheet of paper and suggested I might be able to use it in my research. Now we have more significant detail: His county of birth in Ireland and the year he was admitted into citizenship. 

This made it possible to shepherd out his naturalization record from the gazillions of other John Smiths from Ireland who sought citizenship.

Fast forward a few more years to, where the data from a massive indexing project is being uploaded. The Smith headstone I had located at the Calvary Cemetery in Brockton that gave me the information on John’s three sisters, including Bridget (see “Dusting Off Memories,” 12 February 2017) finally paid off in a major way: the indexing program of the LDS Family History Library had just begun to upload large amounts of data from the work. Included? Bridget, the daughter of Pat Smith and Catherine Guickan, born in Ballinamore, Leitrim, Ireland. 

Had I not had that maiden name from John’s Social Security application and Bridget’s information from her headstone, the information would have been meaningless – just another Smith! But now I have a town/parish in Ireland in which to concentrate my search for the elusive Smith.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dusting Off Memories

Ask our kids how many times a family vacation included a trip to at least one cemetery. One such trip took place long before the digital age, probably in the mid-1980s.

My great-grandmother’s sister Rose married John Ordway, so I was searching for her burial place to verify her husband’s information. I checked first with the local Catholic church to find out where the plot was, but they had had a fire that destroyed their records since the time the Ordways were buried. I knew from my dad that the Ordways were buried in Calvary Cemetery in Brockton, Massachusetts.  If you’ve ever been to New England, you know that some of the Catholic cemeteries can go on for blocks! So we just “pressed forward” and decided to take a quick drive around the perimeter just to see what we could see. Amazingly, we found it in just a few minutes!

With yellow legal pad in hand, I walked over to the stone and began recording the information while the hubs and the kids got some wiggles out. As I was writing, something caught my attention a few rows up and over from where I was standing. The headstone I was looking at said “Smith.” I paid no attention, because I knew exactly where John, Kate and most of their ten children were buried, and it was not at Calvary and not in Brockton. Again, I felt something catch my attention and again, I ignored it. If I started recording every Smith headstone, I’d probably still be in that cemetery, thirty years later! A third time, the stone somehow called to me. I heard no voice, felt no hands on my head, yet I could not avoid looking at that Smith headstone. Finally, with some degree of resignation, I walked over to the stone and wrote down the information.

In the plot were Catherine, Mary, and Bridget Smith and Margaret Dunn. I had no idea who they were. But when I mentioned the names to my dad, he knew immediately who they were – Catherine was John Smith’s mother and the three other women were his sisters. Catherine died in 1905 and the last of the sisters died in 1949, hence the reason my dad had never given them a thought in all the years I had been researching – he would have been fifteen when she died. But my mention of those names “dusted off” his memory.

I had no idea his mother and sisters ever came to the U.S.! Good thing I followed the impression to go over and record that Smith headstone.