Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are?

A couple of months ago Ryan and I were invited to attend a Family History Sunday School class.  I don't think that I'm alone when I say that, growing up in the LDS Church, it was easy for me to say "genealogy is something I'll do when I'm older."  It was an old-people's hobby, not something young, hip people did.  Well, apparently 34 is old, because genealogy is about the coolest thing ever in my mind.  And if you are still in the save-it-for-the-nursing-home mindset, here's a story that might change your mind.

I have been working on Ryan's family tree, which has been pretty frustrating.  I can get a couple of generations back, but most of the family seems to be Jews that came from Russia.  I can find them in America, but they may as well have come from another planet for all the luck I've had in finding people.  So Ryan's family tree has borne precious little fruit.

But if I couldn't get quantity, I'd at least get some quality, right?  There's a family mystery that seems lifted straight from an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?"  Ryan's grandpa, Bernard Axelrod, was raised by a single mother.  Dora Berg was apparently divorced from Burnie's father when he was a kid, and the dad was out of Burnie's life after that.  Burnie was so angry at his father that he legally changed his name to Burnie Allen in the 1960's.  Jill, Burnie's daughter and my mother-in-law, didn't even know Burnie's dad's name - she only knew that his last name was Axelrod.

So that was my mystery - could I find Burnie's dad?  It didn't seem too pressing - the dad had been out of the picture for sixty or seventy years, Burnie's dead, so it was more out of curiosity and the OCD need to fill in all the blank spots on the family tree that drove me to searching.  On Monday, I found the 1930 census that listed Dora and Bernard as living with Benjamin Axelrad.  Cool!  His name's Benjamin!  And there must have been a transcription error, Axelrad instead of Axelrod, but whatever - mission accomplished!

If that was the whole story, even I would admit that it was pretty boring.  But here's where it gets good.  On Tuesday, I was poking around, trying to figure out who Benjamin's parents were, or the ship he came on, or really anything else about Benjamin.  I ended up at the message boards where in 2001 a woman named Beth had asked if anyone knew anything about a Benjamin Axelrad.

Beth's grandmother was Frances Axelrad who had been married to a Benjamin Axelrad.  At a family party in 1986, just a few years before her death, Frances was lamenting to Beth that she didn't want people to forget her when she was gone.  Beth promised that she wouldn't let that happen.  Frances asked how she planned to make sure and Beth replied that she would put together Frances' family tree.  At this, Benjamin's sister (who apparently Frances didn't get along with all too well) piped up and said, "If you're going to do a family tree, then make sure you include Benjamin's first wife and son, because that boy deserves to be on this family tree."  This was the first time Frances had heard that her husband had been married before, let alone that he had had a son.

Side note:  I really wish I had been at that party.  The drama!  The emotion!  It's like watching a soap opera, except it's real people - I love it!

Anyhow, back to the story.  Beth searched wherever she could to try to find her new uncle.  Her only clues were that his name was Bernard Axelrad and that he moved to California.  She didn't know that he had changed his name.  So in 2001, she posted several messages on the message boards, looking for any information at all about Benjamin's first wife.

I sent Beth a private message on Tuesday, saying that I knew Bernard and his mother, but I was looking for her husband Benjamin.  At first, she thought it must be a joke - but there were too many accurate details for it to be fake.  She sent me back a message not ten minutes later, full of excitement and exclamation points.  After searching for 20 years, she had finally found her missing uncle!  Last night I talked to Beth on the phone, along with her mother Rose, who is Burnie's half-sister.  They were so overjoyed to talk to me and to discover this half of the family that they knew nothing about. I called Jill and told her that I had just gotten off the phone with her aunt, and she was shocked to even find out that she had an aunt.  The last time I had talked to her, we didn't even know her grandfather's name.

If this were a reality show, we'd be flying to the Bronx to meet our new family, but unless wants to pay for it (hint, hint), well, this family reunion will have to be brought to us by Facebook instead.  Isn't that cool, though?  Family history doesn't just involve the long-dead, it's also very current and can impact a person's day-to-day life.  Good thing I didn't put this off until I was "old enough."


Helen Knowles said...

That is a great story. I just took the same course, but misunderstood and thought it was offered the first Sunday of each month so I missed the majority of the class, but will play catch up when it is offered again. I was able to view some family info already entered and I have to figure out how to enter my own data (I need to get some one and one time with a friend who knows the program better than I do). Keep up the detective work - congratulations on your success story.

Rachel said...

Wow - that is so cool! I haven't had any stories like that yet. Way to go Emily!