The Toronto Tree Newsletter (Toronto Branch of The Ontario Genealogical Society) published Marianne’s article “Eliminating The Boundaries of Time and Place With Genealogical Research” in Volume 46, Issue 2 March/April 2015. (www.torontofamilyhistory.org)
This article was previously published in the May/June 2014 issue of Family Chronicle Maga-zine and is presented here with permission.
How did I get to know my godfather when he died before I was born?
Genealogical research can help establish personal relationships with our ancestors. By discovering facts, recording anecdotal stories and examining memorabilia, people from our past come alive. Ge-nealogical research eliminates the boundaries of time and place. It provides insight into family dy-namics and deepens our connections with previous generations.
Adolph Perry, my father’s brother and my intended godfather, died at twenty-four shortly before I was born. I lived within his shadow for years and gene-alogical research enabled me to establish a person-al relationship with him.
This article will outline the seven steps I followed.
1. Understand Family Dynamics
I had three fathers and two mothers in my second-generation Canadian-Italian famiglia; such was the role godparents played in our family dynamics. My godmother and two godfathers were my fa-ther’s younger siblings. Chosen before my birth and sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church at my baptism, they were lifelong advisors. The indi-viduals were selected and positions accepted with deliberation, for if either parent died, they would help raise me.
I often discussed issues with them rather than my parents; a situation expected and endorsed. I maintained close ties with my godparents until their deaths and, despite Adolph’s passing and subsequent replacement, he remained my godfa-ther-in-spirit.
Why had my father selected Adolph as godfather? Why had Adolph accepted this responsibility?
2. Record The Stories
Genealogical research seeks facts substantiated by documentation; anecdotal stories illuminate the society within which our ancestor lived and reveal family dynamics. Establishing a personal relation-ship with Adolph demanded both; recording his stories marked my starting point.
Adolph and my godmother were born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in 1928. My Calabrian grandpar-ents believed it bad luck to have children born the same year so, as Adolph’s birth was first, they shifted her date to 1929.
After high school, Adolph moved to Toronto, Ontar-io, my mother’s hometown, to live with my parents and study accounting. When my godmother waved goodbye to him at the train station, she sensed she’d never see him again. Her intuition rang true for Adolph died in Toronto a few months later.
My parents adored Adolph as he did them, my mother has said. He was a dark-haired, handsome gentleman, meticulous in appearance and he always brought her butter tarts.
Adolph apparently died from leukemia or an infection related to a tonsillectomy; irrespective of the cause, death came quickly in April 1952.
By this time, my parent’s firstborn child had already died; my brother was one-year-old and my mother pregnant with me. They’d intended to live in Toronto but after two deaths in his family, my father deemed this untenable. By August 1952, they’d returned to Sault Ste. Marie and moved in with my grandparents. I was born in October and my father’s youngest brother appointed godfather.
Adolph’s stories were cloaked in superstition and mystery and I wanted to learn the truth about him.
3. Validate Existing Facts
Reviewing family records was my next step. My father supported my genealogical research and gave me several documents before he died; none, however, were pertinent to Adolph. I had no birth certificate nor could his death date be verified. When I began, all I had was my father’s black and white photograph of Adolph circa 1950 that he’d displayed on a bookshelf in the living room of our childhood home.
4. Examine Your Connection
Adolph’s death had altered my destiny and re-versed our family dynamics. I should have been born and raised in Toronto and not a small, indus-trial town in Northern Ontario. My mother’s Sicili-an family lived there, but my bond was stronger with my paternal Calabrian roots in Sault Ste. Marie. Notwithstanding the anecdotal stories, the lack of substantiated information rendered my connection with Adolph superficial.
What could I learn from genealogical research?
5. Embrace The Magic Of Genealogy
Genealogical research is a painstaking process demanding patience and persistence. It is also magical and sometimes delivers unexpected re-wards that deepen ancestral connections.
I had been conducting research to solve family mysteries for years when I reconnected with a cousin by chance the summer of 2012. Our fathers had been brothers and he’d returned to sell his parent’s home. As he was sifting through memora-bilia, he set aside some things for me. When I sort-ed them later, I discovered a handwritten letter from Adolph Perry.
Dated February 3, 1952, the letter was addressed to Adolph’s mother in Sault Ste. Marie and written shortly after he’d moved to Toronto. My cousin was unaware of our connection and we remarked about the coincidence. When he returned at Christmas, he gave me Adolph’s wallet. Among the contents was a photograph of my father circa 1941, a poem penned in Adolph’s handwriting and his 1951 On-tario driver’s license.
By examining Adolph’s memorabilia, I glimpsed everyday details of his life including:
–he’d gone to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan for Mac’s Hamburgers
–he’d kept a handwritten copy of a romantic poem celebrating friendship in his wallet
–his parents had mailed him homemade Italian salami in Toronto
Had Adolph wanted to establish a personal connection with me? I’d like to think so.
6. Explore Genealogical Resources
Various resources were consulted in my research to learn more about Adolph Perry and establish a timeline of his life. A sample has been outlined as follows:
The Drouin Collection confirmed his January 25, 1928 birth in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario plus pro-vided details pertinent to his May 20, 1928 bap-tism at Notre Dame du Mont Carmel Church. Sault Ste. Marie city directories for 1947, 1949 and 1950 noted his residence here as did an Ontario driver’s license dated February 23, 1951. According to Canada Voter Lists, Adolph was a student in 1947 and 1949 at the Sault’s Technical and Com-mercial High School; a 1951 United Steelworkers of America Local Union Membership Card verified his November 1951 employment in the Sault at The Algoma Steel Corporation Limited. An original copy of a February 3, 1952 handwritten letter from Adolph to his parents placed him in Toronto and living with my mother and father while furthering his education. Records from the Drouin Collection validated his death on April 10, 1952 in Toronto at the age of twenty-four and outlined facts about his April 15, 1952 funeral at Notre Dame du Mont Carmel Church in Sault Ste. Marie. And finally, Adolph’s grave identification at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Sault Ste. Marie was specified in the Master Algoma Cemetery Index.
7. Assess The Impact Of Genealogical Re-search
Why had my father selected Adolph as my godfa-ther? Why had Adolph accepted this responsibility?
Genealogical research helped answer these questions.
Like my father, Adolph had wanted a life of his own design. Their shared conviction set the stage for his move to Toronto, plans to study accounting and intended role as my godfather. Their bond was evidenced by a photograph I found in Adolph’s wal-let of my father dressed in naval uniform circa 1941.
Loss changes family dynamics by either tightening or weakening ties. Adolph was the first of nine sib-lings to die; three brothers including my father had served in World War Two and returned home. Af-ter returning to Sault Ste. Marie, our life was in-terwoven with the Perry family. In retrospect, I now understand that this close dynamic helped everyone garner strength to move forward.
My genealogical research about Adolph Perry con-tinues but my relationship with him has already been transformed. The boundaries of time and place have been eliminated for by discovering facts, recording anecdotal stories and examining memo-rabilia, I have gained insight into the real person. My memories of Adolph no longer focus on his death; they also celebrate his life.
Adolph Perry is no longer a stranger. When I visit his grave at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery now, I mourn the loss of a godfather with whom genealog-ical research has enabled me to establish a special connection.