Knowing the names and important dates of one’s family members is a gift from previous generations.
Now five months into a new hobby – more an obsession – I’m envious of those who enjoy a family record that says, definitively, that great grandfather was born on this date, in this place.
Neither side of my family spoke much about previous generations. My mother’s side, which I wrote about for Mother’s Day, 1994, was a complete mystery. We found her birth certificate among her papers the day we buried her, but knew nothing about her biological parents. My mother knew their names, but we doubt she had any interaction with them after they put her in an orphanage at one month.
On my father’s side, we’d heard that my grandfather was tall and that he and grandmother met in the U.S., marrying late for couples of that day. We knew of Uncle Danny, but nothing about him or his death in his thirties.
In March, I joined a service that aggregates vital records and I took a DNA test, hoping to find unknown relatives. I opened the surviving family records and started entering the data.
And that’s where the curse of Connecticut came into play.
Connecticut tightly restricts access to birth, death and marriage records. Only lawyers and registered genealogists can get to them, so even after registering as a genealogist, I couldn’t reach them online.
(Under North Carolina law, anyone can see the records and make photocopies. Certified copies are restricted.)
Next came the curse of a common name. There are a lot of O’Connors. And my grandparents were Michael and Mary. Can anyone guess how many like-named couples lived in New Haven, Conn., a small city, between 1920-1940? At least four.
Any idea how many Michael O’Connors are born every year in County Kerry, Ireland? And since I didn’t know the exact year, how many from 1865 to 1875?
Now, once I found the right Michael and Mary in the 1910 Census, I expected I could easily calculate their birth years. They were 39. So, I looked in 1871-72 Irish parish records for their baptisms. But in the 1920 Census, he was 46 and she was 45. And their death certificates indicated their birth year as 1878, which contradicts his immigration record.
Once I got into the public records more deeply, I found that there were many other confused facts, such as names.
I’ve always known my father as George Raymond O’Connor. His birth certificate says George Patrick O’Connor. Uncle Ted was born a year earlier than he knew, and his first name was Timothy. My byline includes my middle initial, T., in honor of his son, Timothy, who died at age 5, a year before my birth. I’ve now learned that that child’s name was really John. My sister, 71 this year, only learned from me last month that her middle name is Mary, not Renzie. “It is?” she responded incredulously. She still doesn’t believe me.
Remarkably, the search for my mother’s birth family has been easier, at least moving forward, not back to Poland.
In both family lines, I found a key detail that unlocked mysteries. With the O’Connors, it was my aunt’s high school yearbook listing her 1927 address. On the other side, it was a church record using the American first name that my biological grandfather assumed.
Many friends have heard my new stories, and several have started their own searches. For anyone looking for a new hobby, I can’t suggest any better. And the place to start is with that family Bible, if you are blessed enough to have one.
Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.