These are my great-great grandparents, Henry and Julia Rogers. A cousin I've never met sent me this photograph last week, along with a chart that showed our shared ancestry back to my great X 5 grandparents, Oliver and Sophia Leonard, who came to Newfoundland from England in the late 1700s. Beyond that, we don't know. I've kept the name Leonard in the family, through one of my sons.
The paper trail for the Pittmans is much shorter. My great-grandparents, Martin and Lizzie, died young, and their orphan children left Merasheen Island for Boston. Only my grandfather returned as an adult, to marry my grandmother Mary Leonard, and have eight children. My great-grandparents' death was a catastrophe, but it was the kind of catastrophe that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Outliers, that alters the arc of the narrative for future generations, arguably for the better. Because of it, my grandfather was educated in Boston and became the very epitome of a 20th century man. He and his siblings jumped the track and moved from subsistence living to the modern middle class. But roots were snapped off in that seismic shift. I have no record of who his grandparents were, or where the Pittmans of Merasheen Island came from.
That could be about to change. Tomorrow, I'm flying to Utah, where some people want to help me trace my roots. The visit is sponsored, so I will be writing about the help I get on Noteworthy, techniques that Alex Haley only dreamed of (I have my family in a frenzy of collecting dates and cheek swabs). But my heritage is all mine, so you can bet some of those stories will get told here.
Like discovering another cousin, on the Pittman side, by googling "Pittman" and "Boston" last Sunday, and getting a hunch about one of the 704,000 results: someone with the same given name as one of my uncles and a first cousin. The link took me to the profile of someone who writes and argues with people for a living. Oh yeah, he's one of ours, I thought. I emailed him.
He got back to me the same day. Yes, his grandfather had come from Newfoundland. Orphaned, he had always been told. I sent him a link to the ship manifest showing his grandfather's passage to New England in 1917. He was seventeen years old. His eyes and hair were brown. He was going to stay with his brother.
We had a couple of lovely emails back and forth, trading names and dates. He has kept our great-grandfather's name in his family, through one of his children. I don't know if we'll keep up correspondence, but I felt the way my kids do, when they are rummaging through a drawer looking for one thing, and come up with something else, something really neat, that they didn't even know was missing. That night, I told the boys a story about some children whose mother and father died. My five-year-old's eyes welled up.
I nodded and hugged him. "It was very sad. It was a long time ago, and people died from things we don't die from now." My great-grandfather died of gangrene after he broke his leg, chopping wood.
"But the children grew up, and got married and had their own children. And they had children. I found one of them today, and he has children your age. They are your third cousins. Isn't that amazing?"
I don't know if they thought it was amazing or not. I looked at the three of them, sitting up in bed, and thought how terrible it would be for them to lose us, but how much worse for them to lose each other. If I could have only one line in my will, it would be that my boys stay together. As I understand it, my grandfather's oldest sister was largely responsible for keeping her siblings together. They remained a family until they had families of their own. I don't expect my sons' grandchildren to be close, necessarily, but I would like them to know of each other's existence, to know where they came from. I think Lizzie and Martin would have liked it too.