She knew I needed encouragement to move forward with my life, so I decided to adopt this philosophy for 2013, instead of making a resolution.
Well, like resolutions, my theme was challenged within the first few hours of the new year.
It all started when an old friend stopped by and shared his book, “In Search of Our Ancestors.” He knew that the history of my birth family was sketchy at best and thought I’d enjoy reading how others traced their roots. He was right.
About 12 years ago I began looking for information about my birth mother. All I knew was that she was born in Germany, married our birth father, moved to the United States, and had four children in just over four years.
My birth brother knew her last name was Shaw and an Internet search suggested she died in Athens in 1995. A few weeks later I drove to the Athens courthouse and found her death certificate. After sitting in the car and absorbing this information for a while, I decided to try to contact her husband, Oscar. Luck had it that he was listed in the phone book so I hesitantly dialed. The second I told Oscar who I was, he enthusiastically pleaded with me to come visit. I found his mobile home and we talked for several hours. His memory was sporadic but I did learn Maria died an early death of heart disease. As I left, he handed me a scrapbook from her second marriage. Oscar could not remember her previous husband’s name but assured me that she would want me to have this memento. I was grateful and promised to return again for a visit.
I’ve looked at the scrapbook a hundred times or more searching for clues about Maria’s life. It was obvious that she and Husband No. 2 enjoyed the good life – partying, boating, dining, and going to the beach. I was tickled to see some resemblance of my own youth in the photos.
I also searched for our father, Joe Will Head, but had very little luck. I located his cousin and discovered that Jo Will’s nickname was Buster, his mother died when he was young and he was raised by his aunt. The cousin took me to his sister’s home and she gave me a few childhood photos of my siblings and me, along with a few of Buster. Sadly, the family lost touch with Joe Will, but thought he might live in Texas. They didn’t think he had any other children. Early Internet searches revealed a Joe Will in Asheville, N.C. – deceased. I went to the courthouse there and found no trace of a death certificate. The clerk was kind enough to phone surrounding counties, but the trail became cold as ice.
So, it was no wonder that on New Year’s night as I read the ancestry book, my mind kept returning to my own family. After a while, I threw in the towel and went to the aforementioned website. I signed up for the 14-day free trial and started typing away. Within minutes I discovered that Joe Will had lived in North Carolina, but was in Texas when he died. His body was returned home and he was buried in the Western Carolina State Veterans Cemetery. Imagine my surprise when I pulled up a photo of his tombstone. He served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and was listed as “Beloved husband, father, and PaPaw.” I can’t begin to describe my emotions as I read those words. Sadness that he was gone, pride that he was a veteran, and curiosity about his family.
With a few clicks of the mouse, I discovered that his wife of many years died this past spring. The obituary listed her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but the trail came to a dead end.
I finally went to bed, but every time I tried to go to sleep, my mind triggered a new idea for research. I’d sit up in bed, turn on the light and laptop and dig around some more. I followed the clues to the Naturalization Department and discovered Maria’s application for citizenship. The request was made in 1955 — a few months before we were placed in an orphanage. The document was a history book. I learned where and when she and Joe Will married, discovered the ship that brought her to New York in 1948 and most importantly, found the address of the home of my childhood memories.
About 4 a.m. I turned off the light for the last time and awakened at 6 to take my overnight guest, Betsy, to the airport. I was wide awake with energy and excitement. I had a plan. When I left the airport, I pulled into a parking lot and entered the address of our childhood home in my iPhone, praying that the house still existed. Within 10 minutes the GPS voice directed me to a small, brick house. It was exactly as I remembered, except I thought the driveway was on the other side. I took a photo and headed home while reflecting on the lives of Maria and Joe Will. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but excited to continue the search.
I like my new philosophy: “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.” Maybe it will work for you, too. However, there might be a caveat. Some chapters of our lives do need to be archived while others need to be completed. We just have to trust we will know which are which.
Shirley Ann Head Duncan Garrett can be reached at email@example.com.