Gathering family history – sometimes you need to ask questions more than once

30 May

When I first started out as a new genealogist, I gathered what I could from Mom – mostly births, marriages, deaths, and some random stories. Here’s what I learned on my first trip to the family well of knowledge and what I learned later about my father’s side of the family.

Legend has it that my grandmother Gladys was an uncaring mother. She parked my father’s baby carriage outside bars and would go in for a drink. She and my grandfather were divorced and she became a single mother. Suddenly single and having to work, Gladys put my father in a private boarding school and went to work at a newspaper in New York (I am unable to find her during her years in New York). When my father became ill and the school couldn’t find his mother’s contact information, they called his paternal grandmother. She went to the boarding school and picked him up and brought him to her own home.

What I learned later is that sometimes there is more to family legend than the little we know on the face of things. Reality may have not been quite so grim…

Having seen and read enough fictional dramas that have fed my imagination, I wondered if perhaps he was separated from his mother by a resentful grandmother, who may have refused to allow Gladys to see him. Who knows what the truth really is? Only the dead know.

When I talked with my mother again, I told her that I couldn’t find any information about Gladys Bowman or her parents, other than their names. That is when the well opened and I was treated to a number of interesting stories that have created a picture for me of what life was like for the Bowman family. I didn’t know to ask, the revelations came as a reaction to my lack of ability to find information.

My mother said that Gladys as a very beautiful woman, but a heavy drinker. She and her ex-husband Ray were “drinking buddies” and went out together all the time even after their divorce and that they were actually each other’s best friend. I found that thought comforting to hear.

I also heard a fun story about Gladys’ father, Martin Bowman – he ran an illegal gambling operation from home and, as Mom says, “the police were always at the house running raids on the illegal gambling hall that he managed to run in his house.” Clearly, Martin was a more colorful character than I ever imagined. Before I found out about the gambling he ran, all I had was a name and few dates for Martin Bowman and his wife Bridget Kerrigan.

I learned a powerful lesson. As a genealogist, trips to the well need to continue and occur over and over to get to the root of all the fascinating stories that surround my family tree. I don’t want to just know dates, I want to know them.

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Posted by on May 30, 2011 in interviewing family


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