Friday, June 24, 2011

Documenting the Obvious

In genealogy, a part of the quest is to document key dates and events. Birth. Marriage. Death. Such documents serve to establish family links as well as certify dates and locations. People whose research goal includes being designated a “first family” of a location—national, state, or local—must gather records to demonstrate proof of their descent from key ancestors.

As for documenting generations closer to the present, the process seems redundant. There is no need to verify the self-evident, you may be thinking. And that may very well be so. In my case, though, I had this nagging need to find documentation of my own parents’ marriage.

For one thing, as squishy as my father’s answer to my incessant questions about family tree matters was, my mother’s reply to my queries about their anniversary seemed even more doubtful. After all, what bride doesn’t remember her wedding day? Yet my mother would always tell me, “Oh, it was June 24. Or June 26. I can’t remember.”

Forgetting anniversary dates has historically been within the purview of the gentleman’s side of the marriage equation. Somehow, in her characteristic Amazon Woman way, my mother had inserted this into her own repertoire.

A few years ago, I decided to settle this date issue for myself. Looking online, I researched what was required to obtain a copy of a marriage certificate. Unfortunately, the state in which my parents were married expected the inquirer to provide exact dates or pay a search fee. Telling them, “Oh, it might be the 24th or it might be the 26th” would never do—let alone the fact that I never had known the year of their marriage.

Perhaps I can avoid this tangle by researching the issue in person, I thought. And at the county level. Easier to fight city hall than to take on the entire state.

My opportunity came a couple years ago. I had a chance to travel back east, and I made sure to include in my road trip a detour to the state of New Jersey, where my parents, both New York City residents, had chosen to be wed. I had photographs of the event and knew the location of the church. Conveniently, the town in which they were married happened to be the county’s repository for such local records. And, to make the trip more fun, my cousin and his wife happened to be in town that same week.

“Hop in the car and I’ll take you there,” offered Bev from her lakeside summer cottage, and we drove downtown. It was nearly lunchtime and the office was empty except for one cover worker. She set out the paperwork I needed to complete for my request.

I stopped dead in my tracks. The page explained that a couple alternate dates could be given, but if those weren’t successful identifiers of the record, an additional search fee would be assessed—which, of course, meant an additional wait. No time for that kind of delay: I was leaving town in the morning. And I wanted to leave with the document in hand.

Silently whispering one of those desperate “Hail Mary” type prayers, I hoped the year I arbitrarily entered on the request form would produce results. I stalled, mentally rehearsing the pros and cons of each possible year of marriage.

Meanwhile, Bev—a longstanding member of the community—struck up a conversation with the clerk. Nothing like having local connections. The two women chitchatted about mutual acquaintances in town. Before I completed my paperwork, Bev had linked the woman favorably with some of her own friends and their relatives.

Doubtful about my guesses, I gave up and handed over the form. The clerk proceeded to search the old books. Meanwhile, Bev kept up her chatter.

At last, the clerk looked up and said, “I’m sorry but I don’t see any records by those names.” She started to close the book.

Bev was quick to slip in a pointed index finger and asked, “What about that?”

Opening the book so we could all see, she looked up and down the page. Desperate to grab any possible way to stall for time, we started looking backwards on the page, thankful that the previous year’s entries were also now visible to us as well as to the clerk. And there it was: the record of marriage for my own parents!

We walked out of that office, pleased that I had my copy of the document I was seeking—and glad that someone had kept up community connections all these years despite having retired to warmer climes. There is nothing like having friends of friends when you need to make a difference.

As for the question of the date—was it the 24th or the 26th?—I now had my proof on officially-sanctioned bureaucratic paper.

Fifty-nine years ago today, until death did them part, my parents had promised, “I do.”

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