Monday, May 23, 2011

When a Loved One Has Left

Don’t tell anyone, but my husband’s older cousin Bill was our favorite relative. He was fun, did nerdy things like compete in debate and develop new breeds of long-haired rabbits. He spent a year or so in Australia, and lived for a while near the top of the “Grapevine,” the mountain-pass route between the Los Angeles region and California’s Central Valley. That’s when we really got to know him, as it was a short four-hour drive from our home to his.

Unexpectedly early and in what seemed to be a freak mishap, Bill contracted an infection that wreaked havoc on his health. A real survivor, Bill kept plugging away at life for a few more years, then sadly died at a relatively young age.

We all missed him fiercely. Obviously, his nearest relatives felt the impact the most. But after a few months, mercifully, the pain of the loss subsided, and everyone found more constructive ways to honor his memory.

One day, his oldest daughter, Sara, gave me a call. She had been going through Bill’s belongings—those odd stashes of stuff that we don’t know what to do with, but hate to throw away—and had found some pictures with scribbled notes. Some photos were so old, they were of people she barely remembered from childhood. Some, she could only guess, were relatives from a previous generation.

She had pieced together the inscriptions she had found, along with the mementos of graduations and first communions, and called me to see if I could find any more information on these people—something, of course, that I am more than glad to do.

Bill’s mom’s maiden name was Novy, an unusual name, to be sure, something that might be easy to research due to its novelty. The family had settled in St. Louis in the late 1800s, but were originally “Bohemians” or emigrants from what now is the Czech Republic.

I took a look in all the usual starting points—many of the “Beginner’s Tools” websites that I’ve already written about—and didn’t have much trouble finding lots of information. Working backwards from the mother, Maxine Novy, I found her parents, their parents and siblings, and worked back as many generations as possible in the same manner. And then I began working forward once again, looking for all the descendants.

Once I had enough copies of pertinent documents and other reports of interest, I bundled them all up and got ready to send them to Sara. I knew that she not only wanted to know more about the treasure trove she had unearthed, but that these wisps of family history could be passed down to her own children when they got older.

Before I packaged it all up and got it in the mail, I found one more piece to include. This is one of those “reading between the lines” parts of research that I love to stumble upon. Looking in the St. Louis census records in the neighborhood where the Novy family lived, in the painstakingly careful yet beautiful hand of another era, I noticed the signature of the census taker: he was a Novy. Bill and Sara’s own relative, in his own hand, left a small brush past a page of history, whispering: “I was here.”

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