Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Little Orphan Cecelia Annie

I presented a slightly abridged and edited version of this to my Toastmaster's club on June 29, 2012.

On July 16, 2009, distinguished Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., returning from a trip to China, found himself locked out of his own home. Upon attempting to break in, a local witness reported the action to the police, presuming a burglary was in progress. A confrontation with police ensued, and Gates was arrested by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley for disorderly conduct. The arrest sparked a national media event, which even came to the attention of the President Barack Obama.

Charges were dropped a few days later, and the President invited the two men to share a beer with him and the Vice-President to discuss the incident. The “Beer Summit” was a success, and relations between the two men are now amicable.

While I don’t know much about Sgt. Crowley these days, I do know that Professor Gates most recently once again came to my attention as a co-producer and host of the PBS program, “Finding Your Roots.”

“Finding Your Roots” researches the backgrounds of a number of well-known people, revealing interesting and surprising information about their ancestors. A similar program, “Who Do You Think You Are?” also ran recently on the NBC network.

With dedicated personnel and the financial support of national television networks and sites like Ancestry.com, it’s no wonder the results are successful. But what about the ordinary American, someone like Little Orphan Cecelia Annie?

Little Orphan Cecelia Annie wasn’t always an orphan. She was raised by a single, loving, divorced mother of four, who could barely make ends meet. Despite the difficulties, the family succeeded and each one made it in the world. The oldest son married and raised a family, another successfully completed a Master’s Degree education with honors and established a career as a medical librarian. Their younger sister also married and raised a family, and the youngest sister, Little Orphan Cecelia Annie, married me.

In 1991, Cece’s mother succumbed to cancer. With her father having left the family in the late 1950s, and subsequently dying in an accident in 1965, links to her family’s ancestry were virtually lost. Technically, she was an orphan, with no known surviving ancestors. Her mother kept few records of her father, and the only information surviving was a death certificate bearing his birth date, death date and where he was living at the time, a couple of photographs, and the names of his two daughters from his first marriage, Cece’s half-sisters, whom she had never met.

For years, I’d always been curious as to her father’s family. Were his parents still alive? Did he have any siblings? Are their cousins? And whatever became of her half-sisters?

My curiosity finally got the best of me after the death of a long-time family friend of my father’s and a surprising revelation in the eulogy presented by my father that my middle name, Dale, was in his honor. If, after 58 years, I was just learning something new about myself, why shouldn’t I also try to find out something new about my wife?

My quest began with a simple Google search in February. That turned up information on Cece’s grandparents, and led to some potential contacts with more information, including the names of her uncle and aunts. Further research revealed that her grandparents, and all of her aunts and uncles, were deceased, but there appeared to be the possibility that some cousins were still out there. I found one mailing address online, and sent a letter to Virginia Rose Lane, an 83 year old woman whom I believed to be Cece’s cousin, the daughter of her father’s sister. In the letter I provided enough information to identify ourselves and the family relationship, and provided mailing and email addresses and a phone number, inviting further contact.

Those of you who know me, know that I am a big fan of the musician Todd Rundgren. An opportunity to travel to Rockford, Illinois to see Todd in a special concert and fan gathering arose, so we decided to combine it with a trip to nearby Indiana, Cece’s father’s birthplace, despite the fact that we still had no confirmed contacts with any family members.

About a week after I wrote my letter, a phone call came from area code 812. Normally, I don’t answer calls from area codes outside of home, but this one was different. I recognized it as the area code for Indiana. I answered the phone, and much to my delight, it was Cece’s cousin, Virginia Lane, calling from 2,000 miles and three time zones away. Unfortunately, Cece wasn’t home, but I spoke to “Rose”, as she preferred to be called, for about a half-hour, confirming the family relationship, getting additional information on some other family members, and basically validating two months of intense research. We concluded our conversation with the promise that Cece would call her back in about 30 minutes, despite the fact that it was already after 9 PM for Rose.

When Cece returned home, she nervously made the call. How could she talk to someone who was a complete stranger to her, yet besides her own siblings, was one of her closest relatives? Thankfully, she found Rose a delight, and together we revealed to her our plans to visit in early June.

In another week, we received another call from Rose’s son, David, who was able to confirm and supply additional family information, and he indicated to us that he would travel from his home in Tennessee to meet us when we visited his mother. This was going to truly be a family gathering.

But my quest for more information on Cece’s ancestry was not over. I continued to pursue other leads, and found deep roots into colonial America, emigration from England and Scotland in the late 1500s, even tenuous links back into English nobility and royalty. But one of the most surprising discoveries was about Cece’s cousin Tom. Tom was not as close a relative as Rose and David. In fact, one would have to go back seven generations, to Cece’s five times great grandmother, Mary Nichols, who was Tom’s first cousin. And given that Tom was born in 1743, it was unlikely we would get a chance to meet him. Tom was born and died in Virginia, and that was not in our travel plans.

When our trip to Indiana finally happened, we did get our family “Union”. It wasn’t a reunion for us, because these were relatives we had never met, nor even known about four months earlier. The family gathering involved a couple of dozen folks, and was a highlight of our trip.

But another highlight of the trip was to visit seven area cemeteries where relatives and ancestors were buried. We saw graves for Cece’s three aunts, several cousins, her grandparents, great-grandparents, even two of her great-great-grandfathers. One of them was Elijah Hammond, the great-grandson of Tom’s cousin Mary Nichols.

But the most moving of all was visiting Cece’s father’s grave, her first tangible contact with something uniquely her father’s. Let me tell you, tears were shed. Little Orphan Cecelia Annie had finally found her father.

Shortly after the incident involving Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. Crowley, Professor Gates appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. He revealed that after some DNA tests, it turns out he and Sgt. Crowley shared a common ancient Irish ancestor. In a much earlier lecture, he also speculated that he might be related to Cece’s cousin Tom as well. While that hasn’t been proven, we do know that Tom went on to greater fame himself and that I regularly carry an image of him: among his many accomplishments, he authored a document titled “The Declaration of Independence” and became our nation’s 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson.