Thursday, October 30, 2014

Family stories, flexible facts.

If history is written by the victors, then family history is 're-written' by surviving family members.  I had always been told by my father that my paternal great-grandmother, Beatrice, traveled alone as a teen by ship from England to San Francisco.  The family lore was that Bea's father had been a violent drunk.  There was a story of his having clocked one of the children on the head with a wooden chair.  I had always heard that Bea, once settled, then sent for the her mother and siblings.  I had also heard nothing about Bea's father other than that he was mean-tempered, and, I had always presumed, therefore left behind in England.  For thirty years, or more, I have had an image in my mind of young Bea, fleeing her mean drunk of a father, traversing the seas alone en route to the West Coast.  The promise of rescuing her family, one member at a time, burning in her heart.  The absence of facts lends to one creating a much more dramatic tale.

Thanks to my partner having tenaciously searched online genealogy sites, the truth of Bea's story was a bit more nuanced.  It is true that Bea came to SF via New York as a teen after the turn of the last century.  In actuality, she had arrived with her mother and some of her siblings, a family mostly intact.  Also known was that Bea had been born in Tasmania.  I never understood why Bea had been born on Tasmania, if my family had come from England to the US.  Discovered via my partner's online sleuthing is that Bea's family (originally from Great Yarmouth, England) left London, where they had been living, for Australia, presumably where building work was to be had (Bea's father's occupation was listed on the census just prior to the family's move abroad as 'carpenter').  After Bea's birth, the family returned to London for a few years before emigrating to America.  Online records also show that Bea's father eventually abandoned his family in San Francisco and returned to Australia where he lived out the remainder of his life.  Without the benefit of online resources, I never would have known anything about Bea's parents, especially not that her father had ultimately chosen to live sans family in New South Wales.  Census records show that, contrary to family stories, my great-great-grandfather had abandoned his family and not the other way around.

My maternal Uncle, Kenny, was of Japanese descent.  This wasn't unusual as it was all I knew growing up.  What, perhaps, was unusual is that Ken, having become a member of the family, retained his original surname.  Why had Ken been raised by Grandma and Grandpa without ever having been adopted?  Had it something to do with his ethnic background?  Where there laws in the 50s preventing white couples from adopting non-white babies? 

Some years ago, Mom told me of how Kenny came to live with Grandma and Grandpa.  It was never meant to be a permanent arrangement.  Like other parents struggling to make ends meet in the 50s, Kenny's biological mother, Nell, elected to put her son into fosterage until the day came when she could afford to take him back.  During the time Kenny was with Grandma, Nell regularly visited.  I had always heard that Nell hailed from Hawaii and was without family in San Francisco.  Ken's father wasn't in the picture.  Five years after Ken began his stay with Grandma and Grandpa, Nell was finally financially able to take Kenny back.  Picture this: Ken is thirteen and sitting on his single bed with his suitcase packed ready to be picked up.  While making her way across town, Nell was fatally struck by a Muni bus.  Kenny waited in vain.

A few days later, a man arrived at Grandma and Grandpa's house, the story goes, who looked a lot like Ken and identified himself as Ken's Uncle.  He supposedly threw a pony tail of what was said to have been Nell's hair on Ken's bed and announced, 'your Mother is dead'.  Apparently, Nell had been brought to the hospital after the accident where she remained alive for some hours.  No one at the hospital had bothered to notify Ken or Grandma.  Maybe the hospital didn't have contact information for Grandma?  Or, perhaps, more to the point, back then it wasn't deemed appropriate for a child to see his parent dying in hospital.  Ken's Uncle, living south of San Francisco in San Jose, had wanted to take Ken back to live with him.  Ken had never met his Uncle before and was reluctant to go.  Grandma loved Kenny and asked the Uncle if she could raise him.  The Uncle agreed under the proviso that Ken was never to be adopted, again, so the story goes.  Ken was then able to stay with Grandma and Grandpa, the only foster kid to be kept, but not adopted.  This is both a tragic and strange tale.  That Ken was able to stay with Grandma was good.  However, was it really that easy to simply leave a child with it's foster parent if a blood relative were in the picture?  Had there been documents drafted and signed?  Was this even legal?

Unfortunately, Ken died this month.  I had never actually verified the details of the above story with Ken while he was alive as it always seemed too delicate of a subject to broach.  The above account was shared with me by my Mom and another family member.  I wonder now whatever happened to Ken's Uncle.  It was Ken's Uncle, wasn't it?  Why, I wonder, did Ken never see him again?  What sort of an agreement was made between Grandma and the Uncle?  Were there cousins?  Where are they now?  Is there still family in Hawaii?  Perhaps some of the answers could be found on genealogical sites.  Different facets of Ken's family story may yet be uncovered and that would be amazing. 

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