Friday, October 24, 2014

When Your Story Touches My Story

Sometimes I can’t get a handle on how fast time flies. Granted, I was thick in the midst of research in Dublin last week, but right in the middle of it all—microfilms, census records, and property tax binders, oh my!—a thought suddenly occurred to me: what became of Donna Grescoe?

If you have been following along here at A Family Tapestry—for quite a while, in fact—you may remember the name Donna Grescoe from my series on my father-in-law’s letters home during World War II. I first ran across her name in a letter Frank Stevens sent home to his folks in Chicago, about one year after his post-Pearl Harbor enlistment in the Navy.

Knowing the surname Grescoe didn’t figure in the Stevens family genealogy, at the time I figured it was yet another mention of a high school girlfriend kindly dropping the brave sailor an encouraging line from home. Despite Frank’s genuine surprise at having received a letter from her, I somehow missed the value of that clue. Although friends, associates and neighbors can reveal hints to the observant genealogical researcher, I set this one aside as a case of an acquaintance too tenuous to lead to any further family details.

That was in 2011, as I worked my way through the piles of letters and memorabilia that had just been passed down to me from the Stevens and Tully families in Chicago. After transcribing the entire collection of letters written home by Frank Stevens over both his Navy enlistment and his subsequent Air Force career, I moved on to sort through the other resources the family had saved.

Because Frank’s mom, Agnes Tully Stevens, had once been a touring violinist, I wasn’t surprised to see concert programs tucked away in this packet of papers she considered important. But when the name Donna Grescoe resurfaced, I had to find out why her name kept appearing in our family’s important papers.

That’s what prompted me to find out who Donna Grescoe was: a child prodigy violinist who, with wholehearted community support, had been sent on scholarship from Winnipeg to study at a conservatory in Chicago. Because she was only eleven years of age at the time of her great adventure, she needed a place to stay during her year abroad. As it turned out, her home away from home was that of the Stevens family. Our family.

Working my way through Agnes Tully Stevens’ personal papers, I transcribed the program she had saved of Donna’s farewell recital in Chicago—which included a list of local benefactors who, along with support from her own hometown, had made her studies at the conservatory possible. My final post on the Chicago chapter of the young Donna Grescoe’s life described a children’s book written about her life. And yes, the book included the detail of Donna’s stay with our family.

As a follow up to these blog posts, there is a “rest of the story” that I need to include here. First, there was the wonderful surprise of a package I received from a Family Tapestry reader, Intense Guy, who with his research prowess had managed to turn up a copy for me of that 1951 book, The Little Magic Fiddler. Inside, there was indeed mention of Agnes and her husband Will, along with all but the oldest son of the Stevens family. Oh, how we wish we could have read aloud to our Uncle Ed author Lyn Cook’s description of each child as Donna arrived in Chicago and met her host family.

Every time I work on a blog post here, I inevitably research far more than I end up publishing. It was no different in working with these posts involving Donna Grescoe. I had found several old newspaper articles announcing her concert tours, reviewing her performances, and—as I advanced to current times—describing her more recent professional ventures. I did end up contacting a musician who was working closely with Donna, and in the process of exchanging emails, learned of Donna’s recent diagnosis of cancer.

That was in July of 2012, as I was completing my series of posts spinning off Frank’s mention of Donna’s letters to him. After that point, I moved on to other topics.

Until last week. Then—don’t ask me why this happened in Ireland while I was working on a totally different project—the thought popped into my mind, “Whatever became of Donna?” I Googled her name and was saddened to learn she had passed away not long after I had made that contact with her associate.

If you recall my mentioning Donna Grescoe in my posts during 2011 and 2012, you might be interested in reading the rest of her story. A brief obituary in her hometown Winnipeg newspaper, followed by guest book entries from those whom she had taught or benefitted, provides some personal reflections on just what kind of person she was. Another article from the city of her more recent residence in British Columbia provides a chronology of her life and career. A reflective piece by her younger brother, published in the Winnipeg Free Press, reveals details of career challenges facing a talented young woman making her debut in post-war New York City.

While I stumbled upon the story of Donna Grescoe only as a tangential detail in researching the history of our own family, her story somehow grew on me. Though not family, she represented a chapter in the life of my father-in-law—an acquaintance who, sharing a home with our family for almost a year, kept surfacing in the Stevens’ conversation and correspondence for years afterward. It isn’t often that a genealogical researcher can find details on her family between the covers of a children’s book. Nor does the average family’s history include time spent with individuals whose story can readily be gleaned from multiple newspapers and public records.

More than anything, though, I think this represents a case of “Your Story Touches My Story.” And knowing her story through that lens bestows that intangible sense of connection. It’s a trace of relationship that, though not familial, still confesses that mystical interconnectivity that broadly draws humankind together as family.


  1. I am so sad she passed away as a result of such a horrible disease.

    Reading the comments left on her obituary page - it is obvious she touched the lives of many and in a positive meaningful way - her dash being intertwined with Frank and his nuclear family makes her part of his dash.

    Tangential as she might be - she is like your Godmother - that intertwining of life rubs something of them off on you (and yours).

    One might imagine what might have happened had Frank and Donna been "serious".... food for thought...

    1. Interesting you brought up my godmother, Iggy. She had come to my mind, too, in relation to Donna Grescoe's story, because of something they held in common. Both she and Donna had Ukrainian roots, and though their life stories were so vastly different, they both exhibited remarkable talent.

  2. I have often been lost in those moments when "your story touches my story," particularly when writing about friends and neighbors of my ancestors. Surely there is a word for that emotion or experience, whatever it is, when you just stop because you can't quite pin it down. You see your ancestor in a different way. They're no longer just your ancestor; they're someone else's friend with whom they shared a life you'll never really know.
    PS -- I've been away without Internet access, so I've just caught up with your last week in Ireland.

    1. Glad you are back, Wendy! It always adds something to read your perspective on things.

      I don't know if anyone will ever coin a word for that certain something you described, but it sure does call for a name of its own.

      There's quite a lot to think of, in reflecting over those shared moments of ancestral life that we'll never quite be able to reconstruct. But at least we can try to gain a glimpse of what life was like for them. I contend that it is precisely because of these friends and neighbors that we do get our chance to see them as they were.

  3. I think in order to complete the circle that you should contact Donna's brother Paul, he shouldn't be too hard to find. He wrote a wonderful article about his sister.
    I am thrilled for you that Iggy found the book...what a sweetie!! :)

    1. Yes, Iggy was a dear to be so thoughtful! That book is a treasure for our family. I'll bet the author had no idea how that book would be appreciated, so many years later!


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