Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Family History Mystery Revealed

I began dabbling in genealogy in late summer of 2010. Curious about my dad's paternal ancestry, I started cobbling together a family tree based on the few facts I knew.

My dad was adopted by his step-father when he was nine years old, which changed our surname from his biological father's. After the adoption, my dad's biological father had no role in his life. They never spoke. In 1990, my dad's biological father passed away.

I never knew him. I never saw him, either. Although my dad recently confided that my grandfather saw my dad and me when we were shopping at a hardware store. While neither father nor son spoke to each other, I'm oddly grateful that he saw me - his first grandson.

I knew about my dad's circumstances, but I knew little of the family that preceded the adoption. I had names for my paternal great-grandparents. I tackled this information with my amateur genealogy skills and quickly identified a handful of direct ancestors. I trawled through reels of microfilm at a local family history center. I began pestering family, including my dad's half-sister (they share the same biological father), with questions and requests for photos and documents.

I was completely absorbed with researching my paternal ancestry. I felt like I was reclaiming my history; restoring parts of my historic self. I was so enamored and engaged with my paternal research that I was blindsided when a piece of the paper trail surfaced and hinted at a family mystery that would alter my genealogy and paternal identity.

A Mystery Revealed
In May 2012, as I left a movie theater, I discovered that I had two voice messages. Both were from my mother. In her first message, she said she spent all day with my paternal aunt (my dad's half-sister) reviewing newly-found documents that were stashed in a safe belonging to my grandfather's widow. They had discovered some surprising information.

Her second voice message was to clarify the first, "When I said surprising I actually meant shocking."

Among the documents were two birth certificates for my biological paternal grandfather. The first was a delayed birth certificate, which I had already seen. According to my grandfather's widow, this delayed record of birth was created in 1972 when he was securing a job with the regional phone company. They required a copy of his birth certificate. He didn't have one, so he had one created. I never thought to question the facts on the document or ask whether there was already a record created at the time of birth.

The other record proved to be quite the shocker. It documented the birth of a boy born the same day as my grandfather and with the same first and middle names. However, the surname was different. There was a different father listed. It was not my paternal great-grandfather (or who I thought was my paternal great-grandfather). The single commonality between the two birth records was that the child's mother was my great-grandmother.

It appeared that she had an extramarital relationship that resulted in the birth of my grandfather. Who was this man - my apparent new great-grandfather? I had a name - at least the one written on the certificate. I also had a family rumor that my grandfather's widow finally divulged.

Rumored Identity
The father's name was listed as Jimmy Kirk. His age at his last birthday was 37 years old suggesting he was born in about 1894. His birthplace was given as Michigan and his occupation laborer. His address, a key piece of information that could help identify exactly who he was, was left - to my great frustration - blank.

There wasn't a lot of exacting information provided that could shed light on this man's identity. Certainly, there wasn't anything transcribed detailing the nature of his relationship with my great-grandmother.

With all of the key players deceased, I had to rely on family recollections and stories passed down. My grandfather's widow shared a family rumor that would be helpful in directing my research.

According to her, after my grandfather was born, he went to live with his adult sister and her husband for an unknown period of time (she would actually now be his half-sister). Why? Was it because the child was a source of consternation in my great-grandparents' household? It isn't difficult to imagine my great-grandfather upset at the idea of raising a child who wasn't biologically his own and was a physical reminder of his wife's infidelity.

The family rumor says my grandfather was the product of a relationship that my great-grandmother had with a watchman who worked at the water reservoir behind her house. The neighborhood kids knew the man and jokingly called him "Kirk-guard" - combining his name and occupation.

With a place of employment, occupation, and a few biographical details from the birth certificate, I was ready to begin my detective work into my biological great-grandfather's identity.

[Continued: Family Mystery Part II: Identifying the Watchman]

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