A Family Christmas Story

The year 2017 was a rough one for me. But I have a story that cheered me up, and I think it will cheer you up a bit too. A couple of weeks ago I received a Christmas card and letter from one of my Burgess cousins which contained some news about his family, including the fact that he had a couple of grandchildren that I didn’t know about. After reading it I logged into my Ancestry.com account to add the new information to my online family tree.

Donald & Agnes Burgess
Donald & Agnes Burgess (Jeff Burgess)

While I was working on it I saw some notifications regarding new records the website had discovered about Donald Burgess, the grandfather I had in common with my cousin. I clicked on them and learned that our grandfather had been married to a woman named Nelle before he married our grandmother Agnes. This revelation was shocking to me because I’d never heard anything about it, and to my knowledge, neither had anybody else in our family.

I began digging around on the website and found more information. My grandfather had married Nelle in Michigan in March of 1925, but the public records also showed that Nelle had subsequently married another man there in January of 1926, so my grandfather and Nelle were together for just a few months. They additionally showed that Nelle gave birth to a son named Richard sometime in 1926. I wondered if my father had an uncle he’d never known about. But further research showed that Richard was Nelle’s only child, and he was born 11 months after she had married her second husband. I also discovered that Richard was still alive and I was able to find his current living address in Michigan, with the help of Whitepages.com.

I sent Richard a letter last week asking him if he could tell me anything about my grandfather Donald, and why his mom and my grandfather split up. Richard is 90 years old so I was a little worried that my letter might cause a fatal shock if he wasn’t aware of his mom’s first marriage. But I wanted to know if my grandfather had been a bad guy, instead of the good guy I’d always thought him to be.

Yesterday I received an incoming phone call on my mobile phone from an unknown number in Michigan. I usually don’t answer unidentified numbers but this time I did and it was Richard responding to my letter. His mind was very sharp and he was eager to help me in any way he could. He told me that he didn’t know anything about my grandfather, other than his name. But he said that whenever my grandfather’s name came up in the presence of his grandmother, she’d tell his mom that she should have stayed with my grandfather because “he was a nice guy” – unlike his father.

I then asked Richard about his father and he told me that he had never met him. He explained that his father had abandoned him and his mom when he was a baby, and that his mom had raised him on her own. He said that he only talked to his father once, when his father called him after he became an adult to ask him if he could meet his wife and see his children. He responded by telling his father to get screwed and that he didn’t want anything to do with him. Richard told me this in a practiced, businesslike manner, but I could tell there was deeply buried pain.

“So, you don’t know anything about your father?” I asked. No, he responded, other than his name, of course. But after some more prodding he recalled that he knew the first name of his dad’s father, and the town where his grandfather had raised his family.

We concluded our conversation by speculating about why my grandfather and his mother had split up. I told him that my grandfather had moved back to his hometown in Indiana in 1926 for a new job, and that by 1927 he had moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for another job. I suggested that maybe they split up because his mother didn’t want to leave Michigan. He agreed that sounded like a strong possibility. I was glad that I could still consider my grandfather to be a good guy. I was 15 when he died and I have many fond memories of him, like when he snuck me my first taste of a cold beer.

I thanked Richard for calling me and he promised to let me know if he ever learned anything more about my grandfather. But after we said goodbye I couldn’t let go of his story. I wanted to know more about his dad. I logged back into Ancestry.com and began looking among the public records for his grandfather. He was relatively easy to find because he had unique name and had lived in a small town. As soon as I added Richard’s grandfather into my online family tree the website began notifying me of more records about him. They included accessible family trees for his family which had been built by the website’s other users. I clicked on one of them and it included photos of his family members. I clicked on an icon of the photo of his grandfather and my browser loaded a scanned version of a high quality black and white close-up. The reality sank in that Richard had never known his grandfather, or seen this photo of him. And I wondered if his grandfather had ever know that Richard existed. (There was no mention of Richard in his family’s online trees.) Tears began to well up in my eyes. I kept digging in the family trees and came across another good photo of all of the family’s five children, taken when they were young adults, including Richard’s father.  Further research revealed that they had all passed. I realized that the photo could be the only thing Richard might ever have about his father, or the two aunts and two uncles he never knew.

I didn’t tell Richard about my online discoveries, but I downloaded the photo files and printed them off, along with copies of the obituaries for his grandparents. I couldn’t find an obituary for Richard’s father, but I learned that he eventually married another woman. They didn’t have any children but the marriage lasted so I printed a copy of his step-mother’s obituary too. This morning I sent them to Richard by Priority Mail. They’re supposed to get there this Saturday, the 23rd. On Sunday the 24th it will be his 91st birthday, and Monday is Christmas Day.

Update

On Christmas Day, 12/25/17, I received an email from Richard wherein he thanked me and said that he “greatly appreciated” the information I sent him about his father. His email had an attachment that was a scanned photo of his mother Nelle. It had been taken when she was the young woman my grandfather had known.

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