Monday, October 8, 2012

Who Did I Think She Was?

With apologies to the originators (and sponsors) of the internationally well-known television series, that is the question that comes to mind when I think about researching my grandmother’s genealogy.

If, when considering the word, “grandmother,” the image of a warm, loving, possibly plump matron comes to mind, disabuse yourself of that notion.

While my grandmother did indeed love her family, hers was a world of prim social relationships and proper etiquette gained from her upbringing, life experiences and education. At least, that’s the way I remember her.

And whatever the case, she was definitely not plump.

She is, however, the key standing between me and acceptance into the lineage society known as Daughters of the American Revolution. And yet, how to document this lady’s life?

Even perusing the little wisps of records she left behind, as I page through her Little Brown Book and catch the falling snippets of remembrance, I am already discovering that what I was told may not match up with the way it really was.

For instance, I was told—a revelation shared by my mother, not my grandmother—that the name my grandmother was given at birth was “Ruby.” Of course, hearing that report (rather than reading it), I presumed to spell it in the common way. On finding a delayed certificate of birth for her in an online facsimile of the Tennessee record, thanks to, I now discover she herself signed the name as “Rubie.” She signed this sworn statement, complete with her middle name and the initial "M" for her maiden name, after her sixtieth birthday.

And yet, the only name I knew her to use was the name, Ruth.

My mother painted it as a case of a person not liking her own name. Woman’s prerogative? How would that stand in a court of law?

I can certainly affirm that the death record found online at matches the circumstances, as I remember them, surrounding her death. Including the record of her name as Ruth.

Aha! I thought: I can confirm this through her marriage certificate. Surely that will provide some connection? But no, it doesn’t appear so, for the only record I can find for a marriage between a Ruth McClellan of Florida and a Mr. Davis of Tennessee—his name seemed to vary with the times, just as hers did—was for a date that, if correct, would lead to another set of uncomfortable questions.

My mother—that source of all unwritten secrets—had confided to me on a few occasions that her parents had actually eloped. Part of the circumstances I’ve already alluded to in a post last year. Now I’m beginning to see there may be much more to this story.

I’ve sometimes heard family historians derogatorily referred to as The Family Snoop. I’ve presumed, in those cases, that there were skeletons in someone’s closet—a closet that others might have preferred left undisturbed by intruders. I hardly thought I’d become an intruder in my own family. But in the midst of this genteel ambience, I seem to be sniffing out some skeletons in my own family’s past.

Photograph: Rubie—or Ruth—Broyles McClellan, undated portrait from a sitting at Arcade Studio, Tampa, Florida; from the author's private collection.


  1. She was a pretty woman - such a beautiful photo. The delayed birth record shows a woman born in Tennessee a year earlier than the death record which shows a woman born in Florida. No wonder this woman is giving you heartburn.

    1. Thankfully, though, in the case of the death records, I have one that shows the correct year of birth--the SSDI (for what it's worth, depending on whether we can have continued access to those records).

      Not that there isn't another Ruby married to a Jake Davis in Tennessee ;)

  2. Hi Jacgi, It is what it will only be uncovering the facts.
    Your Grandma sounds like a unique individual..a bit of a rebel.
    How about school records? I know at the museum we have boxes and boxes of paper ones..copies of report cards..etc.
    Lovely old photo! :)

    1. A while back, I was thinking of asking you what a local history organization might include in its collection. With the renewed interest in the historical district in Fort Meade, it certainly would be worth a try to get in touch with them. Thanks for the encouragement.

      And yes, in her younger years, she must have been quite something.

  3. My mother was one of those proper rule-driven women whose adult behavior was in sharp contrast to that fun-loving college girl who was constantly in trouble with the Dean for making too much noise. Evidently when maturity sets in, those women don't want their children to make the mistakes they made. Happy Hunting!

    1. Now that's a generous way of putting it, Wendy!

      I'd still love to know what these women were really like in those earlier years. I guess I'm tired of stodgy pigeonholes for real people. I'm just not sure how to capture such ephemeral memories.


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